Medicine Soldier

A View from Iraq


New Home

Sorry I have not written in a while. The move to the new camp and then getting settled took a lot out of me. I just haven't had the energy or time to sit down and write a good letter. We have seen more in two weeks here than in several months where we were before. Although it is more dangerous and I miss visiting the children, this feels more like what you would expect from war. We have been marginally involved in several missions since we are still learning the area, but nevertheless we have come closer to the reality of "kill or be killed." I have not personally been on a combat patrol yet, as I have had other responsibilities that required me to stay at the camp. I have been given the opportunity to go to an embassy nearby and will go to Baghdad in a few weeks.

The camp we are living is an afterthought addition to a decaying industrial complex. It is still fully functional, and there are local nationals (Iraqis) working here. There were also mortar attacks in the spring. The result leaves us a little uneasy. We got used to living on a camp that was build as a stand-alone camp where the terrain made us feel like the camp was an M&M on a ping pong table. We could see the desert in every direction and security was easy. Here, the scenery is very busy. We have garbage and scrap metal piles in some areas, steel tanks, pipes and electrical towers in another area. Various buildings are scattered around the camp and we also sit right on the river so there is a nice view and vegetation.

We also have an artillery battery here. The guns fire unexpectedly as they train or respond to real missions. Being tankers and used to firing big guns, we understand what the overpressure created from the moving air as the projectile leaves the barrel feels like. With that knowledge, we can tell that it is outgoing rounds and not incoming rounds. Still, in the back of your head you have to remember at all times where you are and where the closest bunker is located.

The food here is also not as nice as our previous location. It is one of the few camps in the country that still uses military cooks and not a contract dining facility. The chow hall is very hot; you know you are done eating when there is more of your sweat in the plate than your food.

Thinking of the Kids

On one of my last patrols before we left the old camp, we were out inspecting the conditions of the schools in the area. We had to dismount our vehicles and walk around in the streets. The kids were out of school, and everywhere we went we had a little entourage of local kids following us. They were very curious and followed us around the streets and as we walked. We were trying to communicate and I picked up a few more words for my vocabulary. The catch is we were still on a dismounted patrol walking out of site from our vehicles. We would stop and peek around corners and look on rooftops and in windows while we were walking around. I stopped on one corner of the school yard wall to peer around the corner before exposing myself, and I felt a loud thump on my armor plate. To myself I was thinking, "If that was a bullet, shouldn't I be knocked over or something?" Then I realized what happened and quickly spun around to see one of the boys rubbing his head. I broke stride and stopped short to peek, and the boy behind me kept going right into my back. I laughed and went to rub his head, but he ducked down like a scared cat. I pulled some crackers out of my pocket and gave them to him. He smiled.

I Finally Made It Out

This week I was able to go on a patrol. It was good to get off the camp and get out of the daily routine. The days go by faster on patrol. I insisted on sitting in the turret of the hummvee this time. I really wanted to get some fresh air and see the area. We are close to the Euphrates River and its tributaries, so there are more palm trees and greenery than where we were before. There is still the same degree of poverty here. I was talking to some of the civil affairs guys we were escorting about the conditions in Iraq. We both agreed that Saddam was too busy spending money on palaces and weapons, and he let the communities fall apart. Everywhere we go the schools are falling apart. There is inadequate lighting and electricity, small classrooms that are overcrowded, and the foundations are all cracked and crumbling. We also had the opportunity to stop by an embassy guarded by soldiers from El Salvador, and we ran into soldiers from Poland. We were going to go to the ruins of Babylon, but they were closed for some undisclosed reason.

In the News

The area we are in made the news. There was a bombing directed at a mosque in one of the closest towns to our camp. There was speculation that it was an Al Qaeda-related attack, but the insurgents were trying to blame us to discourage relations between us and the local communities. There are lots of political things going on here. The struggle between Sunni and Shia, local politics, and all the corruption makes me think of the mob. The gas prices are just as high over here, but the local police decided they were not being paid enough so they unionized and took over the gas station and at least doubled the price.

Here we have the opportunity to see the full spectrum of modern war. In one area, teams are out rebuilding schools while others teams are meeting with mayors and governors. Meanwhile down the road, American and Iraqi soldiers are chasing and catching these bomb makers. Some of these insurgents get to live and see the detainee center and some do not. We are still pretty new to the area so we have not yet been directly involved with the more aggressive patrols, but I have listened to the pursuit on the tactical radios and we have seen the aftermath of the bombings and the pursuits.

The nights have been in the 80s and 90s this week. While the temperature is still 120-140 during the day, we are finding we get chills at night. I wonder how it will feel coming home to winter in New England. I am however, looking forward to coming home for good. I have decided a bad day at home is still better than a good day here. I am no longer worried about coming home. I am sure things will work out and everything will be OK.

We have started to get mail regularly again. As always, I am grateful for the friends and family I have. I always seem to get the right things at the right time, when I am feeling down or have been thinking about someone. Thank you.

posted by Scott | 13:26 Baghdad time | © 7.28.2005
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George Foreman and Candy Canes

We were hanging around the other day talking about how things are out here. We were joking about the George Foreman grill. You know, two metal plates sandwiching meat while all the juices run down the plates. Except in our cases the body armor is like wearing a George Foreman grill. Everyday the sweat just pours down our torsos. You would be surprised by the puddles we leave behind when we get out of our vehicles after patrol.

After another long day, I came back to my tent and sat down to unwind. As I took off my boots and looked at my feet, the first thing that popped into my head was candy canes. My toes looked like red peppermint candy canes from the sweat and irritation. I have been using lotion, foot spray, and powder regularly, but I am still putting lots of miles on my feet.

Camp life is really not that bad. We have three hot meals a day that we do not have to cook or wash dishes after. We do have showers and electricity in our areas. Hot water is not a problem anymore. We have no commute to work. We have a laundry service with 24-hour turnaround, and we don't worry about picking out what clothes to wear. The camp has a softball field, basketball court, and recreation tent with foosball and TVs. We also have satellite phones and internet. Bills are also not much of a worry, as we have very few options for spending money.

So what is the big deal? There is something missing. Although there are friendships and loyalties in the company and the camp, it is not really family or "someone special." We entertain ourselves by watching movies, playing games, and training when we are not on missions. But I can not escape the fact that I am lonely and feel somewhat trapped. We do not have the same freedoms here on camp. When leaving camp, we have to file an itinerary and understand the risks out there. Staying on camp gets boring after awhile. It is no wonder that animals do not live as long in captivity no matter how fancy the zoo. Even they understand something is missing.

Outside the Wire

Outside camp there are always things going on and changing. We have had more opportunities to touch the lives of the children as we bring food and toys. It is always bittersweet to see such poverty—looking at the joy in the children's eyes when we give them something, and then moments later they are still begging for more while they hide and horde their other gifts.

We also face an adaptive enemy. They stick with the same techniques until they stop working, and then they try something new. It is amazing how many ways there are to make bombs out of common things, never mind the continually surfacing "forgotten munitions" that the insurgents find, build, or the local farmer "finds" in his backyard while preparing his crops. It is impressive to see the changes in the neighborhoods. Some areas had electricity for only two hours a day, there were no street lights, and there were rotting trash and carcasses everywhere. Now they are trying to pave the roads, there are functioning dumpsters, and street lights illuminate the neighborhoods all night.

It is interesting to overhear meetings and discussions about where to spend money to improve the towns. How do you choose what is more important: sanitation, emergency services, or public education? Another complication is we do not want to make the decision; we want the Iraqi government to decide while we just facilitate.

Unfortunately as happy as they are for our help and money, there are still people here that do not want us around and want to harm us. There are those who say the insurgents are here because the military is here. Others say it is Arabs from other Islamic countries causing the trouble because they are afraid the Muslim community will be weakened by American influence. I feel there is a delicate balance rebuilding this country. If we do not do it right, we could end up with a welfare state or the infrastructure could crumble like a house of cards. Either way, we will be blamed. Still, I must remain optimistic and focus on the little bits of good that I can do and not be overwhelmed by the global politics.

Ajax and Achilles Revisited

I still think about the vase we studied in art history of Ajax and Achilles playing chess in a tent while the Trojan War raged around them. Here are some pictures of our moments of fun. I have also had some vivid dreams the last few weeks. I mostly dream of coming home and reuniting with friends and family or even sitting on my porch without any shoes on. Still, I think I have a difficult journey until then as things are always changing.

posted by Scott | 17:24 Baghdad time | © 7.09.2005
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The way you describe your daily routines and the atmosphere around you, I almost feel like I am there. You have an incredible way of describing things.

Posted by Anonymous Katie | 1/8/05 18:18  

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