Medicine Soldier

A View from Iraq


Living Conditions

I have had some emails from home; 80 degrees feels like a cool day here. It has been in the 80s this week. It felt much better than last week, although we are still debating whether or not we broke 100. The biggest weather challenge this week has been the sand storms. Everyone is obligated to wear their eye protection now—even in camp, not just on patrols. I have had a tough time with bloody noses the last two days and have been using my eye drops regularly. When it was hot last week, we were commenting on the thought we still have about 40 degrees to go and we would be luck to see 80 degrees at night. When we were working on our vehicles, we put some nuts and bolts on the back of the vehicle and when I picked them up, I could not hold them, they were so hot. We were also talking about the portajohns again. One of the guys was joking, "Oh its great. You sweat so much in there it just pours off you and washes everything off your ass."

The flies are very aggressive here. Despite a series of doors, fans, and plastic curtains, the flies manage to harass us in the chow hall, and when we are working outside the flies have not problems getting on your face, lips, and ears. It started with the little black flies that get in your eyes and ears. Now we are up to the full grown dime-size flies.

We caught our first camel spider today. One of the guys came back from brushing his teeth and said, "I think I saw a scorpion." So we went flying back out to check it out. We used the big guy as bait once we realized these spiders try to hide in your shadow. I snuck up on it and chased it toward the other guy, who was waiting with some GladWare. It was a baby, an overall length of six inches. We caught it trying to sneak in our showers. Man, they move fast and they are hairy.

Speaking of showers, a few months ago I commented on the hot water situation. Well, it has been fixed—not by improving the hardware, but the cold water tanks sit in the sun all day. So there is cooler water in the hot tank than in the cold tank sometimes. Guys keep getting burned by the temperatures. We just can't win.

I have also found my appetite has decreased in the heat. However, shortly after we arrived, the food contract was changed and the service has gone from "hero to zero" in a few months. It is nice that we have a short order line, a regular line, and a salad bar, but the quality of food has deteriorated and become predictable. It's funny—my favorite meal every day is breakfast, and I eat the same thing everyday. Lunches are usually better than the dinner choice, but when it is hot I eat smaller portions.

I think I mentioned that going to the grocery store for us is driving to another camp and escorting the refrigerator trucks here. We provide the "gun trucks" for the 18-wheelers. It is a great way to get off the camp and out of the daily routine and move out of out operating area, and it takes up most of the day. The runs are not done on a regular or as-needed schedule, though, so we are not predictable for the bomb planters. This means sometimes we have everything we need for a salad except the lettuce, or no eggs for breakfast, or no bread. I am not complaining—I know the guy in charge of the contractors, he is a great guy and we help each other out. It is just the way it is.


I am not sure if I mentioned in my last email about the "fun" stuff we do to de-stress other than running, push-ups, and sit-ups. We have a few volleyball courts and a tent with foosball, TV, and books. However, a softball field was recently constructed and we have inter-unit tournaments. Don't worry, the dugouts are mortar bunkers and our games are limited to three innings. I think we only have about 15 gloves and 5 bats on the whole camp. The average age for the guard units is closer to 37-40. We do have a few senior well-seasoned troops. One of which was going to catch a high slow pop fly—to most, an easy catch—however for some reason he stopped the ball, not with his glove but with his nose. We ended up having to evac him to another camp for surgery. He had a bone chip lodged in his sinus and they were worried about blood clots in his head. When he went for surgery they hooked him up to an EKG and something was not right. He ended up having an angiogram and he was rushed back to the States for a triple bypass. We were speculating that he could have had a heart attack out in the sun and that the softball injury, although comical, probably saved his life.

As I have mentioned before, my evenings are usually busy going to some meetings, getting reports together, and making sure guys are ready for the next few days. I have not been able to get into softball but been trying to get to salsa night. I think I might like it if I can make it on time. I enjoy the idea, although it is meant to be a couple's dance. We did the math and the ratio of males to females is probably 30:1. That is not counting the number of married people or the restrictions on rank. So I end up going to the class and having no one to dance with after.

Things Downtown

We are getting to know the people downtown and have a good working relationship. Although we do not patrol strictly on foot, we will stop and talk to people. My Arabic is improving. We have some regular trouble makers—local kids—and most recently we are working on visiting schools to give out supplies, toys, and things. There are several schools downtown and we ended up "adopting" an all-girls "high school." I figured out they took the average age of all the guys in the companies in the battalion and whoever had the highest number got the high school. Perhaps the unit with the highest average age would be married fathers. I did mention before that in addition to the orders on no alcohol, there is also no fraternizing with the locals. I guess we have come a log way from the Vikings and Sherman's march to the sea. Anyway, we still have yet to get to the school during hours since we have been working nights. I have been nominated the diplomat and overseer of public relations at the school, so I am curious to see how things go. We were really expecting to get a primary school and everyone has been writing home asking for coloring books, stuffed animals, and things for the little kids to enjoy. So once again we went out of our way and found our own school to adopt. The one we found was kind of out of the way, but the conditions are horrible. The students were, however, all polite. The all stand up in unison and greet us in Arabic and say a little prayer for the American troops. We are going to have to petition our chain of command to allow us to cover down on both schools.

We have also been involved in some operations on the other side of the spectrum. It is hard to remain neutral and let the new government work out its differences, but still be involved enough so the governors do not complain we are doing nothing to help them. We continue to interact with the Iraqi adults by training them to run their own police force and National Guard. We are also doing things to keep weapons and explosives off the streets. It is hard to know whom to trust when guys come up to us on the streets and tell us they know where they are selling weapons or where explosives are. We also still have to rely on the interpreters, who often wear masks so the people we are talking to do not recognize them. Last week we had a few near misses trying to follow up on "alleged intelligence." Everyone is good, we just get the feeling sometimes that the other shoe is going to drop sometimes in this fragile environment.

Again I would like to thank everyone sending me stuff both for me and the locals. Also, thanks for the emails. I am missing my life more and more everyday. We do the same thing day after day, seven days a week. Mail and email help to break up the cycle. If all goes well, we may be 1/3 or 1/4 of the way done with this tour.

(Click to enlarge the cartoon.)

posted by Scott | 22:37 Baghdad time | © 4.20.2005
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What's in the News

I think one of the reasons I have been depressed lately is because of the news in the Chow Hall. I think it ruined my appetite to hear about Terri Schiavo every time I went to eat. Some kind of Pavlov's dog response. After that two week ordeal, we began hearing about the Pope and speculated about the chances of leaving him on a feeding tube. We did hear at length about the Pope's illness and the process for electing a new Pope, and have been watching people stand in line to view his body. (Speaking of the Vatican, I'd like to throw in a plug for the book Angels & Demons by Dan Brown.) The death of the Pope has spawned much discussion this week about many topics. One discussion was about the difference between Catholic theology versus Catholic tradition. It is interesting how Christianity has spread through interpretation over the years. In this diversity we had Catholics arguing with Catholics arguing with Mormons and Protestants about different church views. After all our discussions we put our differences aside and went out to play nice with the Muslims since we are not allowed to proselytize. Many Muslims did however offer condolences to us for the loss of the pope.

There is another major pilgrimage this week in Iraq. The last two, one on my birthday and one on Easter, were from Najaf to Kabala. This one is from Kabala to Najaf. It is the third time in the three months we have been here that millions of Muslims will be walking through our area. This always seems to bring mixed messages. There are usually threats against us, and we take measures to protect ourselves while allowing the Muslims to observe their rites of passage. Unfortunately, the people walking the streets are no different from the college parties or post-sporting event celebrations outside Fenway. It is not the locals we are worried about; it is the out-of-towners. I have spoken with my local friends who work at our camp, and they insist their lives have improved tremendously since the coalition forces have been here. Through broken English, one man and I both had the common understanding that Iraq is much like France, Korea, Germany, and Japan. Although the American Army has destroyed many things for some political or tactical reason, we have liberated, rebuilt, and supported these countries afterward. The Iraqis I have spoken with also understand we are people as well as soldiers. They understand the sacrifice we are making to be away from our families for a long time so that the Iraqi children can grow up free, educated, and have a better quality of life.

In another conversation, an Iraqi was talking about the political game they play. There are corrupt leaders who are just like teenagers. The game is to intentionally do something wrong until you get caught and say, OK you caught me, now I will try some other way. I think the implication was that local governments or even Saddam was playing games to try to beat the system. Even the insurgents are playing the game. They keep using the same technique of bombs and suicide bombs until we catch on to it and adapt, and then they come up with something else.

We are supposed to be fighting the war on terrorism. I can not say that Saddam posed a direct threat against the U.S.; maybe that was part of the game. However, I see that Iraq is a better place and is becoming an even better place.

The area we are in is relatively quiet. Aside from some threats during the pilgrimage, we have been helping to support the transitional government any way we can. Sometimes it means staying out of the middle of their disputes so we do not appear to take sides. Other times we are on stand-by to break up a protest or assist in a transfer of authority from one party to the next. When we are not doing these special missions, patrolling, or running convoy security, we have been playing softball at our newly commissioned softball field. We also have a few volleyball nets and I have been trying to learn how to Salsa dance. Unfortunately, something always happens on Salsa night. Either we are on a mission or chasing helicopters. There are also no dance partners in my "group."

It has also been a rough week. I have been fighting through a sinus infection and was ordered to stay in bed for two days, but I could not. We had some guests from one of our Vermont units that is stationed in Kuwait, and we had a few big missions.

Three months in Iraq and the days are starting to drag. The internet has been very slow and I have not had the opportunity to check the last few weeks. The quiet part of my day has been between 8 and 10 in the morning. I have learned to get some little things done. As the day progresses the momentum picks up and before I know it, it is midnight and I have to get some sleep. The news has reported my unit being in the middle of an offensive campaign, which was not true so a response was sent in to the local papers telling a more accurate story. We are not aggressively fighting down here right now, but there has been the feeling that the other shoe will drop at some point. Hopefully things will go well for us. However, now that the Pope's funeral and Charles' wedding are old news, the war is becoming popular again.

posted by Scott | 14:45 Baghdad time | © 4.12.2005
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Grass dancer, eh? Hmmm. I'm Wyandotte, Kickpoo, and Seminole, but some how ended up being a straight dancer, probably because I grew up on the border of the Osage Rez in Oklahoma.

Ate lunch at the Red Cross HQ cafeteria in D.C.last Wednesday. It's just across the park from my office. I'm a lawyer/administrator for the BIA.

Enjoyed reading your blog. I'll check in again to see how things are going in Mesopotamia. My blog is at

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous | 17/4/05 16:46  

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Days Go By

We have been here long enough to establish "steady state operations." What this means is periods of predictable change. Whenever things start to go smoothly, something changes. This is good because things never become boring, but in the long run I feel more and more tired. I have changed some of my daily activities from keeping busy to make the time pass, to enjoying moments of quiet time when I can to make up for the times we are really busy.

I did have a few adventures recently. We had to fly some Iraqi trainees to another camp for training. We patiently waited through the evening for the helicopters to arrive; however, they missed the landing zone and landed in one of the open areas near our dining facility. The tents in the area had been removed so the ground could be re-graded and raised to prevent flooding. The helicopters mistook the bare land for a suitable landing pad. The dilemma was the helicopter's proximity to my company's tents that were beginning to become unhitched and the group of trainees that we now had to move across the camp. I jumped in our company "up armored camp HMMWV," a.k.a. go-cart, and drove over to the landing site to ensure the helicopters did not take off. I also had to signal and guide the Iraqis with escorts to the helicopters. The guys in my unit and one of our sister companies were watching from our tent with night vision devices while I shuttled back and forth. It must have looked comical. When we were done I found myself ahead of the helicopters and took a breath. Then I realized as the speed of the rotors increased which way they were exiting the camp. With nowhere to go, it was like a scene from The Mummy; the sand preceded the two birds and continued to pummel me and my ride until at last the birds were safely off the ground and out of the camp. When I finally opened my eyes, I felt like I had three inches of sand stuck to my head.

There was also a beautiful thunderstorm here the other night. The temps here change so drastically at dawn and dusk that interesting weather patterns occur. We had a minor sand storm concurrently with an amazing lightning storm. Then as the weather grew colder, it rained off and on. I tried to capture it on video. The lighting conditions made the lightning impressive, and the fine sand and rain mixture gave an eerie illumination.


These times are also very frustrating because we are trying to work with the Iraqi people. My position affords me many opportunities to see this on various levels. I am often on patrol riding or walking through the streets in Iraq. I can always feel the vibe in the city. There are some days where it feels more like joyriding, sightseeing, and parading down the streets. Other times the hair on the back of my neck is crawling. On other days, I attend meetings with Iraqi officers or people on the street with complaints.

The reality is the Iraqi people still have much fear and apprehension and it is a delicate balance of trust. The Marines and the Army have both done damage in the cities we patrol and although it may be different people, the uniform stands out. Now we are trying to work with them, training them, giving them aid, and even passing out candy, toys, and toothbrushes for the kids. Under Saddam, the people knew what to expect. They feared him and knew the system was corrupt. Challenging the system got people shot or decapitated, or their families hurt. Now soldiers in the same uniforms are trying to help them. On the other hand, they have a newly elected government on top of old tribal customs, beliefs, politics, and corruption. The people do not know whom to trust and my heart goes out to them. We also rely on interpreters to accurately and correctly convey each of our thoughts and convictions. I watch as they talk and I can see and feel their emotions, not knowing which way to turn. On the other hand, the terrorists wear no uniforms, change their tactics, and often work as sleepers to gain trust and access before committing to a suicide bomb or something.

I still believe they are good people and keep reminding myself how long it took the U.S. to really become a united country and appreciating how diverse Americans are and the things we now take for granted. The American army is after all a microcosm of America held to a tighter standard by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. We are here to provide a positive example for the Iraqis as well as respect their beliefs. In doing so, we have given up more freedoms than being away from our families and we live on cots in tents. We have been given special orders that we are supposed to follow in addition to the Uniform Code: no alcohol, pornographic or explicit material, no proselytizing, no gambling, etc.

We are in a period referred to as stability and support operations, where although there is no open combat, there is always potential for something to happen.

Long(ing) Days

Overall, this is very draining. Between the weather, physical activity, and other factors, I have felt worn out. I have tried to make time to read, relax, and unwind by getting lost in a DVD, book, Tai-Chi, or meditating. Most often when I put my foot down to make time for myself, something happens downtown or someone shows up at the front gate looking for a sympathetic ear, which in many cases the real decisions happen many levels over my head. This week the media released a story indicating my company was the spearhead in a major offensive campaign here in the city. Soldiers were calling their wives who were in tears, not realizing that if they were calling on the phone, we probably weren't fighting. The truth happens to be very far from the media release. Last week was a Muslim holy week and we stepped down our patrols out of respect for the faith and for security, as there were many people from out of town. It was decided that we would allow the Iraqis to practice this pilgrimage that they were not afforded to practice during Saddam's times, while we watched quietly but still maintained visibility. Despite some problems with local police tensions, the celebration went off successfully with little or no incident. The worst thing we were prepared to do (but did not have perform) was search certain makes and models of cars with men military age in response to threats they were making against our troops.

With all this going on I have been at an emotional low. However, I was relieved today when I received several packages in the mail, and the letters from home and my civilian employer reminded me how much they miss my "quiet humor, cheerful smile, and easygoing willing-to-help personality." These words were not only very timely but also a welcome breath of fresh air and improved my spirits. Thank you.

posted by Scott | 15:27 Baghdad time | © 4.01.2005
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