In Iraq for 365

About my experiences in Iraq... the frustrations, the missions and this country... and the journey home

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The history of Mosul, and the future

A couple weeks ago I assigned a soldier to write a story on the history of Mosul. This particular soldier is one of the best researchers I’ve ever met. You tell her to write a story about toilet lids, and she’ll come back with a feature discussing the bottom strength of each brand. She’s a good journalist and is building herself a nice portfolio. Anyway, she dug up more facts about this city and country than I knew even existed. As I read this story, everything became perfectly clear to me: I know why Iraqis are struggling with everything right now. They have never, and I mean, never, had freedom.

They’re like caged animals released into the wild after a lifetime of containment; they don’t know how to react after being behind a wall their whole life.

Actually Iraqis were once behind a wall in Mosul back in the old days. This city’s history can be found in the world’s most popular book – the Bible. The area was built by Nimrod and Jonah was eaten by a whale here and brought people to God all at the same time. Starting in 850 B.C., the people in this region began to be ruled by tyrants. The first was the Assyrian empire. Then in 612 B.C., the Babylonian army pillaged and burned the city and took over. The shift of power in the region went on for centuries until in 1500, the Ottoman Empire expanded its tentacles to Mosul. Then after WWI, Great Britain took control of the region. Hey, the Brits and Iraqis have one thing in common: tea.

Iraq began to develop into a power in the Middle East, although much of which was due to Great Britain’s guidance. They held 10 general elections from 1925-58 and actually joined the United Nations.

All the momentum they had gained came crashing down when a fellow named Saddam Hussein took over. And I believe you know the rest of the story.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to grow up in a country that the history books were filled with: “In 600 B.C., you were ruled by so and so. And in 1900, the Ottoman Empire, who ruled you, was defeated. And in 1979, a really mean guy, who was so horrible that he’d kill people just because they questioned him or spoke Kurdish, became the dictator.”

Seriously, we grew up on the stories of brave individuals facing fear and standing up for what’s right, and achieving victory for their cause even in death. George Washington. Abraham Lincoln. Martin Luther King Jr. The Iraqis read about people being beheaded for standing up.

These people have a history, but it’s filled with hopeless stories of loss. But I really think that may change. I’ve seen some pretty good Iraqi leaders really take charge and push for their country’s freedom. Many have died in the process, but the torch is carried on by those who strive for a better future.

One day, the Iraqi history books will tell stories of the World’s greatest Army coming to town and freeing them, and then rebuilding them, and drinking tea with them even though the Americans preferred coffee. With all my heart, I know that one day the history books will indeed talk of Iraq as a free nation… I just know it.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Gray and reading books; I'm boring

My life has been pretty boring lately. Haven’t been on a mission outside of the wire in a week now and it’s killing me. I’ve been sitting behind a desk, acting as a sub par desk jockey. Editing. Writing. Critiquing photography. Ah, how I want to go out with the infantry again. It’s like an itch, you can’t stop scratching… just one more time and that’s it, mom, I promise.

The lack of mission time has given me the opportunity to catch up on some reading. God, I am boring. I am writing about reading books on my blog, which is supposed to be about my jam-packed, action-filled adventures in a war zone. The next thing you know I’ll be writing about how I haven’t clipped my fingernails in a week and they’re starting to irritate me. I lost my fingernail clippers.

Just to fill those of you in who don’t know, I work in the palace in Mosul, where I have a desk that sits on a marble floor. I sometimes wonder what Saddam did in this room or the conversations his sons had. Oday, “Hey, dad, do you think I could curl your back hairs today?” “No,” Ussay would demand, “you did it last week. I want to touch the great one again. Anybody who could gas thousands of innocent people is my hero.”

Well, my desk is now decorated with hair salon products. No matter where you are, Americans have a sense of humor. My first sergeant gets a kick out of making fun of my youthful gray hairs, which I have like two, and puts combs, shampoo and my favorite, “Toasted-Almond hair coloring” on my desk. I just play along and think of something conniving to pull on him. The difference with my pranks in the military and the civilian world is that I can be dropped, or ordered to do push ups, for something that seems to be funny.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Thoughts in a combat zone

What do we think about in a combat zone?

Death, the mission and family.

Imagine packing your bags and saying goodbye to your family for at least a year, maybe longer, and going into the most hostile situation the United States has faced in the last four decades. Everybody’s seen war movies that depict a soldier saying “I’ll come back; I promise.” And he returns in a coffin with an American flag draped over it. Death lurks in the back of our minds: on missions, while we sleep and when we wake up. People have been killed in this conflict by mortars, sniper fire or bombs. Every single day, it’s there: the thoughts, the worries and the fear that you or one of your soldiers’ may lose their life.

Our jobs – which are very demanding – occupy much of our thoughts. I promise you that every solider here gives it their all. Yeah, we may whine about a certain mission: “I don’t want to do that or this.” But as soon as we cross the wire, our minds are focused and are prepared to execute the mission no matter the cost. We are fighting a war, and we don’t plan on losing even if we do fear the worst. I am a firm believer in the resiliency of the American soldier. I have seen soldiers conduct heroic acts and save lives while mocking death. We know this enemy will try anything to kill us; what they don’t understand is we are a lot smarter than they are. And they have as good of a shot at beating us as Rutgers or Baylor has at winning a national title in football.

I spent a good portion of my day comforting a friend who just lost their father. Losing a family member is hard, but losing them when you’re thousands of miles away in a combat zone is even harder. When anything family oriented happens, it hits soldiers 30 times harder. We feel an amazing amount of guilt, “I should have spent more time with him. I should have been there. I wish I were with him.” Perhaps, it’s just because we’re human and hurting on the inside and it’s our nature to blame ourselves – even though there’s nothing we could have done. Bottom line, it’s really hard being away from home. You miss your family, and when something bad happens, it just flat out hurts. As for my friend, this soldier father’s mentioned several times how proud he was of her. See, this soldier’s dad was a soldier too. And he understood what she was going through. She’ll never forget the last words he said to her, months ago, “I’m so proud of you.”

Our thoughts are with the ones we love more than anything else. I’ve found myself randomly thinking about the times my dad used to take me to football games or when my mom spanked me so hard that I cried for two hours or the time my little brother shot me in the face with a BB gun. I always laugh. Pictures of my family hang near my bunk, along with a couple scandalous photos of Britney Spears (man, she’s hot). I think about them constantly, and even though, it’s hard for me to relate to them anymore… I love my family more than ever and I cherish all the wonderful friendships I’ve made through the years, and regret a few relationships with girlfriends. But that’s another story.

Please note that this blog is of my own opinion and is not endorsed by the U.S. Army or other military branches. Please do not quote me in your stories.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Iraqi agriculture

Vast desert swallows most of Iraq. In the southern and central provinces, the fine sand leaves little nutrients for farmers to plant crops. However, in northern Iraq, the soil is predominately a sandy loam, rich with nutrients.

The landscape in the north is filled with green grass, deciduous and coniferous trees, and an abundance of cash crops, such as wheat, barley, rice, vegetables, dates and cotton. The splendid vegetation in northern Iraq gives the livestock producers many options for grazing as well.

In the desert sections of Iraq, the sheep and cattle producers graze their animals for miles before finding a green patch. In the northern provinces, the herders do not have to walk their livestock far before finding a lush patch of green.

Northern Iraq is truly an exception for a country where only 13 percent of the land is arable. Despite the region’s potential to become one of the most productive agricultural areas in the Middle East, it still has its downfalls.

During the last 10 years of the Saddam Hussein regime, farmers were required to constantly grow crops, never leaving their fields fallow. Essentially, the same fields grew the same crops. The farmers didn’t cross breed or bring in new species, which depleted the quality and quantity of the harvest.

The result of Saddam’s 10-year mandate was a severe drop off in wheat yields. Over time, the once-plentiful earth of northern Iraq had become susceptible to fungous and disease, especially Karnal blunt on wheat, because of the lack of time for field succession and weak plants not capable of fighting off disease.

Since agriculture accounts for 50 percent of northern Iraq’s gross domestic product and farmers have not met demand, the area – known as the breadbasket of Iraq – has not been very financially successful the past decade and the citizens are the ones who have paid the price.

Since Iraqis eat flat bread like we eat potato chips, the decrease in crop production, especially wheat, not only affected their economy, it made feeding their families even harder. Saddam actually gave each family a small dole, except for the Kurds, of about 200 Dinars, which equals about $2, a month. As the supply of wheat became short, the price of bread and flower increased and the smaller families struggled.

Then came the United States of America, the country that has the most fertile soil and the smartest agriculturalists. Shortly after we demolished the Iraqi army, folks from all government entities traveled to Iraq to help in their respective department to rebuild this country. One such agency was the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Aggies began searching for ways we could help the Iraqis, and nearly two years into our occupation of Iraq, Americans continue to help.

One such story is that of 1,000 pounds of wheat seeds recently donated to northern Iraqi farmers. Researchers from universities and agricultural companies put their heads together to discover several strands of wheat that would survive Iraq’s arid climate. My part in this? Well, I took some pictures and interviewed a lot of people involved. Turns out, several Iraqis appreciated our involvement. Imagine that.

Even though this story may never get publicized any where but on my blog and my “official” release, it’s one of my favorite topics. Simply because I can finally say “The U.S. plants seeds for the future of Iraq.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

What am I thankful for?

Before this year, Thanksgiving was one of those holidays I just looked forward to because I got a couple days off work and fattened myself up a little. Sure, I read the stories about the Pilgrims and said the prayers of how thankful I was for everything. But today, I realize what this holiday is all about.

Although I am not with my family and in a land where my life could be lost at any moment, I see that Thanksgiving isn’t about sitting at a huge table and stuffing our faces with turkey and pumpkin pie and then watching football. It’s a day to reflect on our life, both the good and bad times, and to cherish the sacrifices made by those who have given us the opportunity to be free.

I am thankful for the opportunity to serve my country overseas. Although people may not agree with this war, it has been a life-changing experience. I have met people who could have become scientists, successful trial lawyers or renowned academic scholars. Rather than pursuing a lucrative career, they chose a life of selfless service to be an American soldier, the one profession that every American should be thankful for. I have seen schools renovated, countless smiles from Iraqi children and thousands of anxious Iraqi soldiers motivated to secure their country. I’ve seen so many good things over the past 10 months. One moment I’ll never forget is when I covered a school opening and a 12-year-old child read an essay in English, thanking the Americans for freeing his family and giving him the opportunity to learn in a school that has new desks, heat and air conditioning and chalkboards – all of which his school was without until we completed renovations. He spoke better English than I did when I was 12. Seeing this little boy read this essay truly defined this deployment for me.

I’ve also seen the other side of this war. The blood shed. The tears. The explosions. Of course, I am thankful that I made it out of each combat situation alive. But there are many – both Iraqi and American – heroes who have lost their life. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to have known many of these brave individuals. When I knew somebody killed, I found myself wishing I had one more moment to spend with them. But they will always be in my heart and I will never forget them.

Last but not least, I am extremely thankful for all of my friends and family. They have been so supportive, sending care packages, letters and emails almost daily. Yes, it is hard being away from home and yes, there are times I wish I was back in Milwaukee or Oklahoma City. But, I have a job to do here – a very important job – and I am doing it because of every red-blooded American. I love: the United States of America; everything Old Glory stands for; the children who draw little stick pictures to give to their parents; American football; the freedom of religion and speech.

The bottom line is I am thankful for America. And I am damn proud to be wearing our flag on my right shoulder.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Who can we trust?

“Man is corrupt. Man is unfair. Man is man. Man is holy. Man is different. Man is man.” I wrote that yesterday in my diary, inspired by the arrests of two prominent Iraqis.

I have read hundreds of books that the main characters were powerful men who seemed to be righteous, giving and compassionate, but in reality – behind the scenes – they were greedy, lustful and power hungry. Recently, we detained (actually Kurdish soldiers) the former Mosul chief of police for working with insurgents and allowing them to takeover the police stations on November 11. This guy had been shot by the terrorists a few months prior and now we learn he was working for them all along. Occasionally, a bigwig from Baghdad would travel up to Mosul or U.S. Generals would visit with Barhowie (former police guy) and we’d send a photographer along to document the meetings and write a possible news story. We have countless photos of this rather tall Arabic man with a long mustache and the smile of a rat nibbling on a piece of cheese. And every time I snapped his photo, I had an uneasy feeling about him. He really seemed like a slime ball. Turns out, my gut feeling was right all along.

About a month ago, the one Iraqi I thought was true to the core was detained. This guy was a high-ranking officer and he impressed me so much that I wrote a feature story on his leadership style and war record. Of the 125 stories I’ve written in Iraq, only one has been solely about an Iraqi man. I take that back I wrote another one, but that’s literally another story. Anyway, I admired this man for his courage, leadership and tactical thinking ability. He was also a very powerful man within his tribe. Not only did he believe in nepotism, he starved soldiers who didn’t belong in his tribe. That’s not all he did, but I can’t really get into specifics.

We had a governor in Mosul assassinated back in July. He was a true patriot and believed in this country’s future. The governor he replaced was fired for being crooked or as we put it in America “misappropriating funds.”

Who can we trust? As the Bible says, you cannot trust man as he will deceive you. However, I do trust in God, and the fact that we are discovering these crooked individuals and emplacing more reputable leaders is a sign that His will is being done. How do I know this? Well, the terrorists are threatening those who work for us more and more, and if somebody is still working for us, they are either rats or for real. And if they’re rats, we catch them every time with just a little piece of cheese.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

I've changed a lot

Quiet day today. Nobody dead or severely injured. I watched the news long enough to see the debacle about Scott Peterson and the NBA players fight with fans. That world seems so far away.

When I was home for leave, I had a very difficult time adjusting and just being a citizen. I don’t know why or if it will be like that when I’m home for good. All I know is I have changed a lot. Yeah, I still have my sense of humor and make people laugh. But I feel more disgusted by little things. Like the NBA players saying they were fighting for their life. Hey, Ron Artest: Strap on a pair of boots, grab an M-16, say goodbye to your family for a year and take a little trip to the desert, and I’ll show you fighting for your life.

Before this deployment, I was very apathetic about political issues. Now, every chance I get, I read the news or find out what policies are being decided. Especially during the Presidential Election, I paid close attention. “We need to train the Iraqis faster,” said Sen. John Kerry during one of the debates. Hey Kerry, when was the last time you saw the Iraqis train. Did you know that during the Saddam regime, regular soldiers only practiced with their weapons once a year? When they did fire, they shot three rounds. Just to put it into perspective, I’ve fired more than 2,500 during my eight-year army career. Kerry, did you also know that the Iraqis never encouraged an NCO corps until we began to train them? The U.S., British and other great armies consider the NCO, mid level leader and bridge between enlisted and officers, are the backbone of their army. And did you know that most of our recruits are farmers or former (poorly trained) Iraqi soldiers, who know less about how to handle a weapon than speaking English. Every Iraqi soldier I met during their basic training course could say “Hello and how are you,” but they couldn’t properly clear their AK until we taught them. So, just how the hell are we going to train them faster? It takes time, and our soldiers are doing a damn fine job teaching Iraqis how to be soldiers.

Those were my thoughts when I heard Kerry speak. Needless to say, I didn’t vote for him, not just for this reason.

How else have I changed? Well, I can’t watch horror movies (too much blood), but I like playing War Games (where there’s more blood). Ironic, huh? I think more about falling in love and having kids than ever before, and raising a family in a quiet neighborhood near a large body of water.

I can’t believe I just admitted that. My dad would be proud. He’s a touchy, feely type. I’ve always been an army guy.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

In the Holiday spirit

There I was taking a shower in the tin can known as our shower trailer. My buddies were to the stalls on my left and right. A few guys were at the narrow sink that spans six feet from the door to the water heater brushing their teeth, shaving and farting. It was a full house. And we were all singing “White Christmas.” When somebody slammed a door really hard at a nearby trailer, we went silent. A slammed door from a distance sounds distinctly similar to a mortar round being dropped in a tube and launched. When we heard no explosion, we (I can’t vow for everybody, only myself) continued scrubbing our chiseled abs, cannon biceps and sang.

I’ve really been in the holiday spirit lately. One of my Joes’ grandma sent the unit a six-foot-tall blowup turkey with a gobbler the size of my head. Of course, we all had our picture taken with it. Everybody said the holidays would be the hardest of our deployment. I can’t really say that, because I have grown really tight with these folks the past 10 months and we are so close to going home that a holiday is just another day with extra food.

Amidst all this holiday talk and decorating and singing, I realized that I can have conversations about behead bodies, and it not even faze me. We found several beheaded bodies thursday or was it yesterday. Anyway, the terrorists beheaded these Iraqi soldiers.

I’ve been asked several times by people how do the Iraqi soldiers stack up. Well, that’s a loaded question. The only other armies I’ve been around have been Aussie, British and Nicaraguans. It’s not fair to compare them to us, that’s for sure. From what I’ve seen, some Iraqis leave their post when they get shot at. Others stand up and fight. In the U.S. Army if you leave a fight, you go to jail. The Iraqi army allows their soldiers to quit whenever they’re tired of being a soldier. That’s the problem. There’s no accountability. It’s always been that way. That’s why we stomped ‘em in ’91 and again in ’03. Now, I’ve served and fought alongside some pretty damn brave Iraqis, many of whom I felt were just as brave and strong as U.S. soldiers. Those beheaded soldiers who we found recently lost their lives for their country. They were soldiers, men of courage and believed in the future of this country. When their blood is spilled, I have just as much remorse for their loss as an American.

And on Turkey Day, I will pay my respects to those Iraqis who have lost comrades on the battlefield. When I eat chow next Thursday, it will be with a slew of Iraqi soldiers and although I speak about as much Arabic as an American toddler, I will tell each of the Iraqis Thanks. And then, I will stuff myself so full that I probably won’t have abs of steel anymore.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Me vs. the media

I am fed up with the media. We recently had a reporter publish secret facts he was privy to and put American soldiers at risk after he was specifically told not to print the information. I know soldiers who have been interviewed and nothing they said was printed. Rather, the reporters made up quotes to meet editor’s demands. Since we get media here and I too am a journalist, I often ask them questions. They are always uncomfortable about talking to me; ironic, eh?
I should clarify. Not all reporters and journalists are bad, some have been quite nice and were actually very reputable. I applaud the media networks and newspapers that try tell both sides of the stories. FOX News reports the negative facts like every other network, but they also capture the positive stories. But a lot of the journalists who embed with us, I’d rank just above plankton in terms of the world’s most useful creatures.

Let me tell you why I feel this way. We are fighting a war here against several groups of people with atrocious ideals. The reporters seem to always stack the facts against us and question our every move, while the terrorists, the same people who have captured, beheaded and killed more than 30 reporters, are given the opportunity to speak their ill-conceived thoughts.
Recently, a U.S. Marine allegedly shot an unarmed Iraqi, which completely overshadowed the death of a British aid worker killed by the terrorists. In reality, it’s like the media just wants to paint a picture of us raping and pillaging Iraq, as if they want the American opinion to turn against the soldier.

First, let me just say that I am not passing judgment on this Marine, but people watching the news are viewing this war from their couches and have no idea what it’s like. When bullets start flying, people die. However, from my experiences, there always seem to be a lot of onlookers at these firefights. They perch up on their rooftops just watching explosions, gunfights and people dying. I guess they don’t have satellite television. And again, I am not defending this Marine, if he did indeed shoot this woman. I just wish the journalists were fair and balanced, like WTMJ, and told the other stories.

Let me tell you about a few people I’ve known killed who were interpreters and missionaries or completely innocent. You probably didn’t hear about them because the media couldn’t possibly put the terrorists in a bad light, like they do the soldiers.

In April, two missionaries visited Mosul. On the very first day they arrived, their bodies were filled with 7.62 mm rounds, fired from the bad guy’s weapon of choice – the AK 47. Were they innocent? They were here to spread the Gospel of Jesus, and since they visited with American soldiers, they were considered infidels.

The best Iraqi friend I’ve made to date was Samir, one of our interpreters. He was gunned down on his way to work one day in September. All he did was call the local media, informing them about school openings, etc., and interpret Arabic newspapers. Is that a crime?
In August, a suicide car bomber attempted to hit one of our bases. The car prematurely detonated and only injured a few soldiers, but took the lives of a little girl and her mother. They were just walking on the side of the road and had no affiliation with us whatsoever.

But you don’t hear about that on the news. Instead, we’re under a huge magnifying glass while our enemy is given every benefit of the doubt. It’s almost like the media are attempting to turn the public against us. I just hope the day never comes when soldiers, those who are truly defending our liberties, are referred to as baby killers again. All deaths are tragic. It’s the world’s reaction that is scary.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Give me all your money now

When I started this blog, the army was beginning to tell people, “to be careful what you post on your blog. You don’t want to violate operational security or say anything inappropriate.” In other words, they were monitoring army blog writers. So, I was a little hesitant to continue writing, even to the point of discontinuing it. But after all the smoke cleared on bad army blog writers, I decided to come back full force, because I love the army and love soldiers and sometimes, I’m not always able to tell the full story with my “official” army releases or articles. Now, I would never, in a million years, ever write anything negative or anti army, so I think I’ll be OK in terms of keeping “In Iraq for 365” alive for the duration. Plus, I understand my readership is up to four people now thanks to a big fan in Dallas, Texas, and I cannot possibly disappoint my new readers.

With that being said, I will slowly begin to infiltrate your minds with subliminal messages to send money to my bank account. I know it’s not a good idea to tell people you’re going to do this, but I’m a straight shooter (especially with a gun) and I feel like I owe to you before the brainwashing process begins.

Today, we sent live satellite interviews back to the states. We were on air with CNN, FOX, BBC, NBC, ABC, CBS and the Playboy Channel (just kidding). I had nothing to do with this, but the soldiers in my unit made it happen. We have so many talented personnel that it amazes me of our capabilities. Our general told it like it was… the Iraqi Police let us down the other day by abandoning their posts when the enemy presented a fight, we have more than enough forces, both Iraqi and American, in the city to move out the insurgents and we are kicking their butt. My family has been extremely worried the past few days because the only images of Mosul are of cars burning and dead people lying on the roads. Some networks said the insurgents completely took over the cities. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

What else happened today? Well, I got in a huge argument with a senior NCO. Not a good thing to do, especially in front of your commander. I didn’t get reprimanded, but that’s only because the other party is a dear friend of mine. I guess, after 10 months of living in a combat zone, worrying every day about your soldiers and hearing explosions, you just have to take it out on somebody. Unfortunately, I did it on somebody higher ranking than me.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Yesterday in Mosul

From rooftop to rooftop to alleyway to street corner to lurking under the shadows in the dark, my feet touched a lot of concrete and asphalt in southern Mosul yesterday. And today, I am extremely sore after sprinting and climbing and jumping and waiting. My whole body feels like a truck just ran over me. I was with an infantry unit that conducted combat operations for 13 straight hours. Al Jazeera reported that the Americans have pulled out of Mosul. Well, I can tell you that I was here yesterday and today (and the nine previous months), and we haven’t pulled out. In fact, we are taking the fight to the enemy more so now than ever.
I realized how numb I’ve become to war yesterday when I was on a rooftop taking photos of our snipers and mortars began landing about 200 meters from our position. I didn’t even flinch as the shrapnel clanked off the wall I was hunkered behind. We patrolled through the streets and as we walked, the mosques in the city blared loud sayings in Arabic. Some of the men starred us down. You could see the hate in their eyes, but we just smiled, kept walking and moved toward the objectives. Other people were happy to see us and offered us candy. I didn’t eat any. Once I got sick after eating local food, and I vowed to never eat it again. The FNGs grabbed handfuls of candy and ate it like they’d never seen food before. The smell of raw sewage filled the air as we patrolled. Iraq doesn’t have the sewer system we have in the States per se.
On these types of mission, you can be moving forever, it seems, and nothing happens. Other times, it’s constant combat. But most of the time, it’s quiet and all of a sudden you’ve got some Schmo, who doesn’t like MTV or George Bush, standing in the middle of an intersection shooting at you. Yesterday was one of those days. We were on the streets for two, maybe three hours, and then we heard rapid gunfire to our six. It wasn’t us, but when fighting breaks out on a large-scale operation, everybody’s pucker factor goes up a little. The Iraqi Good Guys were taking on the Iraqi Bad Guys (and foreign fighters). Quite a few from both sides were killed and or hurt. We medavaced the hurt good guys to an aid station, where we treated their wounds. I didn’t learn what happened until this morning, because when I returned all I wanted to do was eat, shower and sleep. That’s usually what I do after most missions.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Military secrets

I can’t really talk about a lot of the things I do or see, because it would violate operational security. Like yesterday, I was a part of something really, really cool, but I can’t talk about it. Maybe, later I can, but not now. Keeping a secret is a lot different in the military (especially in a combat zone) than in the civilian world. In the military if you talk about something you shouldn’t, you get in big trouble. If you start gossip, you get half your paycheck taken away, possibly lose rank and could even get kicked out. If you cheat on your wife, you could go to jail. In the civilian world if you tell a secret, you get people lined up at your office or home asking to know more. “Really, that’s what she said,” one might inquire and suddenly you’re very popular and everybody wants the scoop. Secrets in the corporate world are a joke, because anybody with a little gossip passes it on to the next person… it’s just human nature, and I’m just as guilty as the next person when I’m a civilian. But in the army, my lips are sealed. When reporters are embedded with the military, they are often privy to these military secrets and are not allowed to report on it. Sometimes they follow these ground rules, and sometimes they don’t. If they choose to talk about how many troops we have or where they’re located or an upcoming operation, they put our soldiers at risk and if you ask me, they just helped the enemy. Remember Geraldo and the sand tables? We kicked him out of Iraq for pointing at a sand table and talking about how many troops we had and where. If you ask me, Geraldo is a piece of crap not worthy of a roll of toilet paper when he’s taking a number 2. That’s a horrible feeling and by the way, we have to place our paper in the trash can because Iraqi toilets can’t handle toilet paper in their sewage lines. Then you have reporters from Al Jazeera who work for the terrorists. They recently reported that we pulled all of our soldiers out of Mosul and that insurgents took over the city. The last time I checked I’m still here and insurgents can barely even tie their shoes. We are breaking their backs and trust me, they don’t stand a chance. And that my friends is not a secret at all.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Jibber jabber on two hours of sleep

I am so tired that I don’t think I can write another word, but I will because I owe it to the two people who read this blog. Today, I sat in a room no bigger than a stand-in closet. I scanned the streets of Mosul all day and did nothing but look for the enemy. On a day that the terrorists clashed with Coalition and Iraqi forces more times than I have fingers and toes, and bombed a police station or two the day prior, my pucker factor was on extra high. To top it off, I had really bad gas and the soldier observing these streets with me got a little tired of me hiking my leg up and squeezing off a juicy one every five minutes.

Anyway, as I am observing these streets, I can’t help from notice how Iraqis just meander through the streets. There will be a group standing in the middle of the road just talking, while a sheep herder takes up a lane of traffic with his flock. Then, random cars are pulled over with the driver searching his trunk. Of course, my first thoughts are this guy is making a car bomb. Turns out, he’s pulling out a spare tire. I saw 12 spare tires changed today. If somebody watched a main road in the U.S., I’m sure you could spot a dozen cars easily with flat tires. But here, you have a different mentality and you’re skeptical all the time of everything. The people seemed so peaceful and happy, and it’s hard to spot an enemy, as they don’t wear a uniform and shoot at us from crowded areas.

Every five hours, the mosques broadcast their prayers and all Muslims are supposed to stop what they’re doing and pray. Honestly, I don’t know what the prayers are saying, but they sound very soothing. I’m sure whatever the imam is saying, he’s not saying kill Americans because they want to rebuild your country. At least I hope not. OK, I have to go sleep right now.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Crazy, man, crazy

Yesterday, we received approximately 27 rounds of indirect fire. Two people killed, seven severely wounded. One of the guys killed sat next to me on the C-130 on the way back from leave. Seemed like a really nice guy and a good soldier. My prayers are with him and his family as well as the other soldier’s.

Today, I had guard duty and let me tell you it was crazy. We were firing artillery, the enemy fired mortars and anti-Iraqi forces and Iraqi National Guard duked it out. Because I had guard duty, I didn’t get the chance to document what was going on. But I still saw quite of bit of smoke, just wasn’t there. I’ll be honest I was jealous of the other mil journalist on the scene. Of course, what’s going on in Fallujah is the center of attention, but there’s fighting going on all over the place. And we will beat these sons of bitches.
I’ll give a better, more detailed update tomorrow. For now, I have to go.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

What is a pogue?

It’s difficult to explain my job to people in the military, more so than civilians. Most civilians think any job in the military is dangerous, but soldiers classify folks who work in the office as pogues. Don’t ask me what it stands for, but if you’re not out getting shot at and you sit behind a desk than you’re classified as a pogue. Sometimes, I sit behind a desk and sometimes, I’m out with the infantry, special forces and or support units. So I guess you could say I’m a part-time pogue. But most of the time, my head is in the mud right along with the infantry. If you’ve ever seen “Full metal jacket” or “We were soldiers,” I am the guy with the camera. I go out, get the story, take the photos, go to the office and write it. I’ve repeated that scenario about 80 times the past 10 months.

However, in this war, it doesn’t really matter what your job is or your rank, anybody can die or be put in a position where they have to kill. In basic training, they give you this mentality, but in Vietnam, Korea and the World Wars, it’s always the combat occupations who are killed and or do the fighting. In this war, I believe, more support soldiers, such as cooks, truck drivers and mechanics (etc.) have been killed than the infantry.

I got to thinking about this when I was taking care of some “business” in the Port-a-potty, which is a haven for army graffiti. This note called an army office worker a pogue. While sitting on this fine plastic toilet lid, I pulled out the pen in my shirt pocket and simply wrote “Pogues are soldiers too.”

Below is a recent story I wrote. Enjoy…

MOSUL, Iraq – With thick rain clouds looming over northern Iraq and random heat lightning crackling in the night sky, a company of infantrymen prepare to walk onto the streets of Mosul, grab suspected terrorists and call it a night.
The leaders of Company A, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment spent the previous 12 hours planning for this joint operation that featured the best soldiers of the 101st Iraqi National Guard Battalion. The raid, on a local market suspected to be a terrorist haven, would be Company A’s second major operation in the short month they have been in Iraq, but the Soldiers were prepared for whatever challenges lay ahead.
“Are we up on comms, ammo and NVGs?” said Sgt. Rommel Fafanan, a team leader with 2nd Platoon, Company A, 3-21, as he ran through his pre-combat inspection with his Soldiers. “Alright, load up and let’s go.”
As they climb inside the Stryker, the Soldiers joke and talk about far-off future plans.
“We should definitely go to Seattle when we get back,” one Soldier said.
But when the vehicles leave the gate, the Soldiers’ mood shifts. They are quiet and focused, and the air sentries are scanning for suicide bombers, roadside bombs and ambushes. Company A Soldiers had already endured six roadside bombs, detained 30 suspected terrorists and been involved in several fire fights, including a two-hour skirmish in downtown Mosul.
“We have definitely become combat veterans in a short period,” said Capt. Robert Lackey, commander of Company A. “Our Soldiers are ready for anything when we leave that gate.”
On this chilly November night, the storm clouds are active. Large beads of rain splash across the air sentries’ shoulders. The paths leading to the objective are surrounded by large water puddles. With nearly every step, the Soldiers splash themselves and their buddy. Their uniforms, equipment and boots are soaked. However, it doesn’t matter to these infantrymen. “We’re infantry,” proudly said Spc. Michael Sullivan. “We can handle the rain.”
They can handle terrorists too. When Company A reaches its target area, the Stryker ramps drop and the Soldiers quickly move into position, cordoning off the market square. Company A Soldiers secure a thick woodline that borders the marketplace and block off all entrances, leaving the anti-Iraqi forces no place to run. Spc. Jonathan Mair said their goal is to catch anybody who runs away from ING soldiers, who are searching and conducting identification checks on more than 50 suspects.
“Get down and don’t move,” an Iraqi soldier said to a suspected terrorist identified in the market.
The suspected terrorists obey the orders and none attempt to flee the area. The ING and Company A Soldiers detain 19, including an individual on Multinational Forces’ most wanted list.
“Every time we work with them (ING), they get better and better,” Lackey said. “It’s great conducting these types of operations with Iraqi Security forces and seeing them get motivated to do the job. We have built a great relationship with the 101st and they continue to impress me. And I just can’t say enough for the job my Soldiers have done. We have become subject matter experts of Mosul. Our situational awareness gets better every time we leave the gate.”
Soldier Reflection
After the Soldiers processed the detainees and begin to head back to their headquarters, Forward Operating Base Freedom, they reflect on the job well done, their short time in Iraq and their families.
“That mission went by a lot quicker than the last one,” Fafanan said. “When we take a terrorist off the streets, that’s one less thing I have to worry about for my family. That’s why I’m here – for my family.”
A veteran with the 3rd Infantry Division during the initial ground war in 2003, Sgt. Clayton Allison said, “These guys (3-21 Soldiers) know what they’re doing. We are fighting a different war than when I was originally here, but we all work together to accomplish the mission.”
Mair said, “When we first got to Iraq, the size of Mosul and attitude of the Iraqis are what surprised me the most. It’s such a large city and the people want us here, despite what we saw from the media a couple months ago. The most satisfying thing is when we patrol the streets and kids wave at us. That let’s us know that we’re not hated by the people and what we’re doing is not a waste of time.”

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Watching football in Iraq

Watching your favorite football team via satellite television in Iraq is like drinking a glass of refreshing ice tea on a hot summer day with 30 hot girls in skimpy bikinis rubbing your back. Watching your favorite football team via satellite television in Iraq when they lose is like drinking a warm glass of another man’s spit in a fat lesbian biker bar. You want to puke, especially when they were winning by four touchdowns. Especially when you skipped out on sleep just to watch them play. Especially when you watched the team you hate the most beat your beloved alma mater. Not to mention, I’m in a country where they think football is soccer. I’ve been depressed all day because Oklahoma State, my alma mater, lost to Texas. It’s hard to concentrate on the little things when something so dear to your heart – a victory – was ripped away from you. I HATE TEXAS football. They are cocky, pathetic and crude. I didn’t go outside the wire today. I just wrote a bunch of stories that had been piling up and edited my soldier’s work. Of course, there was conflict. One soldier still acts like she’s in high school, living at her parent’s house. She whines and moans when she’s given a mission. Today, I told her she was lazy because she interviewed a soldier from our unit, which is unacceptable. That would be like a Washington Post journalist interviewing his copy editor about the election. Ever heard of conflict of interest? At any rate, I’ll admit, I was in a cranky mood since OSU lost. But I still remained professional, but my lashings were a little tougher.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Market raid, new guys and the bad guys

When we capture really bad guys, it is so gratifying. Last night, I went on a market raid where terrorists were hanging out. I can only imagine what their conversations were like before we showed up.
“So did you see that convoy come through the other day?” one terrorist says.
“Yeah, I can’t wait to try and blow it up because the Americans are trying to rebuild our schools, hospitals and give us freedom,” the other terrorist says. “Don’t they know that Iraq is supposed to be ruled by people who keep everything for themselves and not for the people?”
“Hey, where did you hide your bomb making materials,” another said. “I am so good; they will never catch me.”
Then, we show up with enough ammo to take on anybody. We had Iraqi National Guard too, and you could just see the frustration on their faces. The ING soldiers are tired of seeing these terrorists and foreign fighters sending suicide bombers into their convoys, and tired of hearing about another innocent Iraqi civilian killed by the terrorists, and tired of not getting the credit they deserve for hauling in the bad guys.
Well, I’m here to tell you that the Iraqi security forces in Mosul are tough and they don’t mess around. These guys went into this market and cleaned house. They captured a slew of folks who have probably been responsible for hundreds of deaths.
We (the Americans) secured the site as the ING soldiers conducted searches. Of course, I roamed the area with my camera, snapping photos and ducking behind cover just in case a bomb goes off or somebody decides to shoot at me, neither of which happened. I used my new night vision on my camera AND IT STARTED RAINING. I think it’s rained maybe once since I’ve been here. My lens fogged up a few times and it was difficult to get the “perfect shot.” I managed to snap a few pretty decent pictures, of which will probably never be seen by anybody other than me, a few generals and my grandchildren.
People ask me all the time, what’s your favorite mission. Don’t get me wrong, I love school openings, hospital dedications and other ribbon cuttings, but man, I love the rush of a raid and the looks on the faces of the terrorists when they know they’re caught. Yesterday was special, because it was with a new group of Soldiers. They have been here for a month and have seen more combat than most soldiers have seen in a year. They performed superbly and were very excited to have me along to take their picture. At the end of the operation, I was soaked, had a great story to write and damn proud to be an American soldier.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Talking to Iraqi truck drivers when I smell like a dead animal

Yesterday, I traveled to the Turkish-Iraq border to cover the efforts in ensuring supplies from Turkey are safely brought into Iraq. And man, it was cool. There was very little enemy pressure, which means I had piece of mind as I was walking and driving on the streets, and the truck drivers were all so thankful for our help. Of course, like every Iraqi I’ve ever met (except the bad guys), they wanted their picture taken. They also had a truck stop. That’s right, an Iraqi truck stop! I died laughing when I saw it. I didn’t go inside, so I can’t tell you if they had a cashier named Betty chewing gum at the counter and a bathroom with condom dispensers. My guess is no, but you never know. At any rate, I slept in what was like a hotel and ate good ole Army chow, but didn’t get a shower. If there’s one thing that aggravates the hell out of me it’s stupid policies. The people running this “hotel” for military personnel enforce the shower rules, and they don’t let anybody take showers except from 0600 to 0900. Well, I arrived at this location at 0300 and the night prior, I was out on raids, and the night prior to that, I had guard duty all night, so I’ll be damned if I wake up any earlier than 1000 at this point. I was tired and didn’t care about a shower. But when I woke up, I realized that stuff starts growing on you after you hadn’t showered in three days, especially in the arm pits. Needless to say, I went another day without a shower because of a stupid rule. I guess, they’re trying to preserve water, but man I really smelled like a dead animal on the side of a road. Good thing I have a lot of scented baby wipes.

Also on this trip, I found an interesting girl to write a feature on. She’s a native of Haiti but moved to the U.S. after her mother died and then joined the army. This will be my fifth non-U.S. citizen story the past 10 months. I really like telling their story, because they are serving a country at which they are not even a citizen. And the fact is they tend to care more about our beloved country than most national citizens. This particular soldier said the one thing she couldn’t wait to do when she became a citizen was vote. Funny, how so many Americans failed to do just that in the past couple days.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Soldiers to missions, just another day

Wow, two posts in two days. I can’t believe it. Today, I’m told I have a mission far, far away to go cover. The typical story: Soldiers work hard to provide security for the Iraqi people. I’ve been doing this so long now, it seems that I can just fill in the blank here and there and the story is done. Of course, I try to give it a special ring to it that will garner attention. What else happened today? Well, I had a soldier come crying to me… saying they can’t handle it anymore. Of course, I have an unbelievable amount of passion for my soldiers and hate seeing them like this. I sent her to a combat stress specialist who listened to her and provided professional advice. No matter what job you do in the army living every day in a combat zone is incredibly stressful and I don’t know if words can ever fully put it into perspective to those who haven’t been there done that. I do everything I can to make sure the soldiers aren’t too strapped and that they are enjoying, with all things considered, life. Of course, I’m the reason for a few tears too. Once, I made a soldier cry because she didn’t know a certain unit’s designation. At the time, we had been here for 8 months and she didn’t know the name of the unit we’d been covering. Honestly, that’s all I said; I guess my tone was just mean. I made another soldier cry when I scolded her for being disrespectful to an NCO. In the army, if leaders aren’t stern and decisive, the soldiers will take advantage of the “nice guys.” A bad attitude, or disrespect, can lead to the mission not being accomplished. The mission not being accomplished can lead to the battle being lost. I think you get the point. Anyway, sergeants like me are there to make sure soldiers don’t get out of line and execute, execute and execute again. We keep them motivated, frustrated and smiling all at the same time. Of course, we must lead by example too. That’s why I choose to go on the more dangerous missions and try to stay in tip top shape… albeit I’ve put on 20 pounds since coming to Iraq (my marathon physique looks normal now). And when the soldiers have hit bottom, I try to pull them out of the water. In other words, that’s why I’m going on another fill-in-the-blank story… so my Joes can have a break.