In Iraq for 365

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

Friday, December 31, 2004

NCO Alley

Every night, we meet in between the row of trailers. Sometimes, there’s just two sitting in the red plastic chairs that would snap in two if Rosanne Barr sat down. Even though our job requires us to leave the camp a lot, normally the majority of our NCOs are present in the alleyway covered with cigarette butts and gravel. We call this place “NCO Alley.” It’s our refuge… where we get away from all the crap and just dump our brains for the night. And since we can’t enjoy an ice-cold beer made in Milwaukee, Wis., we get drunk off of laughter.

Joe is always the first one there – we call him the “King of sleep,” because he goes to bed early and wakes up late. The next to walk down the alley path are Sammy – he’s a little chubby, 40 + and laughs at anything; Tommy – he’s toothless; Johnny – Mr. Punchline; and then me.

We sit in a circle, talking about the strangest things imaginable. Oh, man, if hunks of rock and sheet metal could talk, we’d be in trouble. I won’t lie; we can be quite vulgar. As we open the latest issue of Stuff or Maxim, “God, did you see her rack?” (Sammy laughs) When we talk about an “active” girl on post, “It would be like throwing a hot dog down a hallway.” (Sammy laughs) Of course what good would a group of NCOs be if they didn’t talk about officers or their Joes’ shenanigans? “Yeah, I didn’t agree with that decision.” (Sammy laughs) “You know what I’d do if I were you, sergeant? I’d smoke her.” (Sammy laughs)

We also have are own little ritual or initiation per se. Most people would find this absolutely sick, but I assure you that nobody’s ever been hurt physically or emotionally. Joe, Johnny and I grab Sammy when he’s in the middle of one of his chuckles (he’s a big boy so it takes three), throw him to the ground and hump him from three angles, like a coyote ravaging a house cat. I don’t know why we do this, but it is hilarious. I even admit, it’s sick, but that ritual has gotten me through some tough days and made me laugh so hard that I once slobbered on myself. And no I’m not gay (but Sammy might be, because he seems to like it), not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sad thing is, this ritual is practiced in most combat arms units… so, we’re just carrying on a tradition of what I like to call “Stuck in a Foreign Country Fighting a War” (SFCFW) humor.

The jovial conversations and SFCFW humor are only broken up when somebody we don’t like walks up or when mortars fall. Tonight was the final gathering in NCO Alley. We have packed our bags and moved out of the trailers. FNGs will be moving in soon, as we have relocated to temporary housing (military for the projects) as we just count down the final days.

Because we wanted to share our joy, we gave somebody an honorary membership today and just sat there rehashing the past year. “Hey, you remember when so and so lost her weapon?” “Yeah, that was ate up.” We also humped Sammy. Even the honorary member understood… he laughed. Sammy, the oldest, baldest NCO of the group, laughed too. “Sammy, one of these days, Haji’s going to hear your damn laugh and hit us with mortars.” And just a split second after this sentence was completed, I kid you not (I swear this really happened), we heard whistling and saw flashes. Bullets were whizzing by our heads. I heard the ricochet of some pretty high caliber rounds and felt the wind of them flying by. We hauled our butts to the bunkers. Tommy’s ears were ringing. “I saw a flash in front of my face. I can’t hear.” We checked him for entry or exit wounds. None. The bullet must have flown right by his ear, completely missing him, thank God. “Everybody OK?” A near unanimous yes echoes off the bunker. “We told you they’d find us if you kept laughing, Sammy.” He started laughing and so did everybody else. “Well, I guess that’s the end of NCO Alley.” We all thought about that statement for a second. Many good times were shared between the five of us, some of which got us through some difficult days. It’s really a bitter-sweet ending to a beautiful thing – NCO Alley.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Car bombs, rockets and scented candles

After I completed my guard shift last night, I changed into pajamas – red and black checkered bottoms with my Army-issued brown T-shirt. I was very tired and quite anxious to crawl into bed. I turned the radio dial to 107.3, TFO Radio, and was disappointed to hear Britney Spears – while she’s great to look at, I’d rather pull latrine duty than listen to her. So, I curled up in my sleeping bag and softly whispered my nightly prayer: “God, please forgive me for my sins. Watch over my family. And protect our soldiers. Amen.”

Then, I heard the distinct sound of the AK-47. This was followed by .50 caliber, M249, M4 and M240 gunfire. It was about 2 a.m., and the fighting was close by, which meant the enemy was attacking the camp or somebody has a really bad sense of humor. I jumped out of bed; my body gearing up as it had before: a tingling sensation, hairs curling up on the back of my neck and an overwhelming eagerness for the gunfire to stop while at the same time desiring to get right in the middle of it. I grabbed my M-16 and met my captain in the foyer of the palace. In my haste, I forgot that I was still in pajamas. Even when tracers were lighting up the sky, the only thing I could think about was “Man, I hope a sergeant major doesn’t walk in right now and see me in pajamas.” Boy, why aren’t you in uniform? Luckily, my captain was in similar garb, so I didn’t feel so bad.

At that moment, my captain and I were the two most heavily armed men in the world wearing pajamas. We never locked and loaded our weapons. After all, we were inside the palace and there’s no way the enemy is getting through that wall of .50 cal gunfire. But should they breach the perimeter, we were ready to defend the Alamo. The fighting subsided after a few minutes and the last weapon fired was held by an American soldier, so I think you know who won.

Turns out, the fighting was quite a bit further away than we thought. I felt pretty dumb after I learned how far. So, it was back to bed… I said my prayers (again), this time I added a special thank you, and thought about the day’s events.

Earlier in the day, fighter jets lit up a large pocket of insurgents as our ground troops moved in, eliminating more than 20 terrorists. Also, a suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with more than 1,000 pounds of explosives attempted to run into one of our bases. He was unsuccessful. Soldiers saw the truck closing in on the gate and opened fire. The bomb prematurely detonated, killing the bomber and an American soldier. I focused on this soldier during my prayer. While I didn’t know the soldier, my heart was filled with pain. Each time one of us dies, I pray he or she is the last one.

Of course, every day for the past year, I have prayed specifically for the soldiers in my unit – a National Guard Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. Today, I was worried that for the first time this prayer was unanswered. Rockets hit the camp and we had everybody accounted for, except for one.

I’ll call him “Tommy.” Tommy’s the kind of guy who if you were barefooted in a sticker patch, he’d give you his shoes and suffer the prickly thorns puncturing the bottoms of his feet. He smokes more cigarettes than Larry King did back in the day, and he has that good-old American soldier sense of humor (if you’ve ever served, you know what I’m talking about). Great guy and he’s coming home with us!

I looked in the dining facility. Not there. Looked in the motor pool. Not there. Looked in the mail room. Not there. Looked in the MWR facility. Not there. And the last place I looked was last for a reason. The aid station. I’d been in this building before after an indirect fire attack and watched our medics save lives. I’ve also seen them pound their fists in anger after they did every thing they could to resuscitate a soldier. This time, the room was empty. Although I was quite relieved that Tommy was not on a stretcher, I was still frustrated. Where is he?

Then, from a distance, I saw him walk into the palace. I quickly followed from behind and when I caught up to him, “Tommy where the hell have you been?” I didn’t ask; I barked. Always respectful and showing military bearing, Tommy stood at parade rest (the modified position of attention and proper stance when addressing senior NCOs). “Sergeant, I dropped off my laundry.” Why didn’t I think of looking there?! “Oh, well, we were worried about you. Did you hear the impact?” He shook his head.

Just thankful he was OK, I wanted to give him a big hug at which point I realized I’ve been here too long… I’m wearing pajamas to bed and feeling the need to hug another man. War is supposed to make people tough, not sensitive. Next thing you know, I’ll be reading Cosmopolitan and asking people to send me scented candles in care packages. I pray this never happens.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Food or a bomb: That is the question

Wrapped in a red foil sack, the food caught everybody by surprise. It happens all the time… locals bring us food to thank us. But as this tub of something sat on an office table in the palace, nobody could say who brought the chow. Still warm, the food appeared to be some type of meat and it was unusually heavy. At a time when everybody is extra alert, people asked people who asked people who asked more people. We must have asked 40 locals and soldiers, all of whom absolutely had no clue on where the food came from.

Considering a week ago, we suffered a dramatic, tragic attack on a dining facility, the speculation of a potential “food” bomb in our office began to surface. I’ll admit, I was one of the first to come up with “that doesn’t really look like food; probably just trying to cover something up. And it weighs a lot.” A couple other people, much more senior ranking than I, inspected the potential threat. “Yup, that can’t be food. It’s too heavy, and it doesn’t smell right.” Another fellow walked up to the wrapped tub and slid his hand under the opening, feeling the texture of whatever it was. “It’s too rough to be a meat and it’s not sticky enough to be a sweet. And it’s really heavy. Somebody call EOD.”

EOD is short for bomb disposal. So the unknown package was sent to a safe area, which meant away from the palace and crowds of people. These guys were the experts, and even at first glance, they detected something fishy. “Yeah, that really don’t look like food.” They picked, prodded and poked the package. They had some type of meter. One sergeant held his glasses to his mouth, like a professor, as he gave the package one more look around. “Meter’s not detecting anything. Can’t be a bomb. But that thing, whatever it is, still ain’t right.”

So, the original group of experts huddled one more time. “Are you sure you don’t know whose that is?” Nope. I got it… it’s poisoned. “But, we haven’t even determined it’s a food yet.” Which is why it makes perfect sense! They know Americans love to eat strange things. Have you ever been to the South? They’re still frying sheep testicles. “Good point. So, what do we do with it? See if somebody will eat it?” Yeah great idea, that way if it is poisoned we can watch their eyeballs pop out. The answer is simple, we throw it away.

The thing must have weighed 20 pounds and it had a rough texture. Hard black clumps were embedded in a stiff brown plaster-type substance, which even though EOD cleared it, made people still say “I really think this is a bomb.” It’s not a bomb. Let’s just throw it away and be done with it. Nobody’s claimed it the last hour or asked, hey have you seen that 20-pound glob of mine.

We threw it in the trash can, where I believed it belonged. Even if it were food, who in there right mind would eat that?

Two hours later walks in a very important officer. “Hey, have you guys seen a large cake? Somebody was supposed to deliver it a couple hours ago.” Uh, sir, we threw it away. “You what?”

We told him the story about this so-called cake being mistaken as a bomb and then poison, emphasizing that everybody’s extremely alert. “You guys are idiots!” He then told us that the strange-looking cake was made by the best baker in Iraq. It cost $200 and was a gift to a very high-ranking person from a very important Iraqi. The cake was supposed to be eaten, not thrown away, the officer said many times.

“It was a cake, not a bomb. How in the world could you mistake a cake for a bomb?” Sir, did you see the cake? “No.” It was heavy and it had these black things in it and smelled like vinegar. “Well, maybe the baker used vinegar to bake it.” Well, sir, why didn’t you tell somebody about the cake? “Because I didn’t think a bunch of idiots were going to throw it away.”

At the end of our cake-bomb discussion, the officer agreed to let somebody know the next time he has a $200 cake delivered and we promised to not throw it away. That is, unless it was poisoned or a bomb. You can’t be too alert these days!

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Talking to FNGs

When you walk around with a camera strapped to your left and an M-16 to your right and you work with seven females, you tend to get a lot of weird questions. “My, that’s a big camera you have there.” “So, that’s all you do is take pictures?” “You work with girls? Wow, I want your job.” “How do I get your job?” “You’re that guy off of Full Metal Jacket aren’t you?”

I’ve been asked about my military job more times than Charlie Sheen’s smoked weed, so I’m used to giving out the traditional answer of “well, I’m sent all over Iraq to tell the soldier’s story and to document combat operations.” Those words come out of my mouth like a pre-recorded message these days.

Today, I’m taking a shower and there are a few new kids in shower trailer number two. Being the neighborly fellow I am, I introduced myself and welcomed them to Iraq. Yes, I wore a towel.
I should have just kept my mouth shut, because all they wanted to do was ask questions when I was in no mood to talk.

“How long have you been here?”

Eleven months.

“Wow, so have you killed anybody?”

At this point, their title changed from new guys to FNGs (F#@king New Guys). I didn’t answer, but they continued to dig just like a reporter… “so you ever seen action?”

I felt like saying, no, none at all… I’ve been here a year, hidden from all the mortars, grenades, snipers and car bombs. In fact, you see that cave over there? That’s where I live… I never leave, especially when a colonel tells me to go cover a firefight at a mosque. Of course, I didn’t say that. I told them the truth: Yes.

“So, what’s it like?”

Good God, these FNGs never shut up. If you’re the new guy, there’s an unspoken rule: you don’t talk to the “seasoned” soldier about this stuff unless he volunteers it. It’s kind of like asking somebody how much money they make; it’s just personal. I was cornered, and I thought they might actually learn something from me, so I answered.

Well, for days, sometimes weeks, it will be quiet as you roam the city, but in just a split second, you’ll here the whistle of a mortar, the crack of an AK or feel the heat of an RPG whizzing by. It all happens so fast, you have no idea what’s going on. The only thing you have is the guy on your left and right, your training, gut instinct, and most importantly, your weapon. I say a short prayer every time I leave the wire. The only time I didn’t, I almost lost my life.

From their reaction, I could tell I just prompted another damn question.

“Really? Did you get a Purple Heart?”


“What do you do?”

I think since I was the one being interviewed here, I was thrown off guard by the question. Not to mention, I just stepped out of the shower and just wanted to brush my teeth. Needless to say, my typical one liner was gone from the memory bank, probably blocked by the frustrations this conversation was causing.

I'm an Army journalist. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Full….”

“Wait, you’re a journalist. Do you work with that red head ‘with the big camera’ who was with the general yesterday? Do ahh, you know, could you hook me up?”

I wanted to kick his scrawny ass! That girl is my soldier! She saved my life a couple years ago when I came down with Lyme Disease! She’s like my little sister. I think he saw my nice demeanor turn sour. He rephrased the question.

“I meant, I saw her the other day. She really seems like a nice girl. She you’re soldier?”

Yup. She’s a good soldier. Stay away from her. I’ll cut your balls off if you touch her.

Perhaps, I went a little too far, but I’m extremely protective of my female soldiers. There’s one girl per 100 males, and every one of them is considered a beauty queen. While they may enjoy the attention, I certainly worry.

“Oh, I didn’t mean. I mean, uhh, I didn’t mean I’d try anything.”

I smiled and started brushing my teeth. They left. Finally, I had some peace and quiet. Then another new guy walked in.

“How’s it going?”

Good, as I walked out the door. The FNG may have found it rude, but in a year, he’ll understand.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

PR Man takes on Bad Grammar Guy

I have faced critics before about my writing, and I’ve grown some pretty thick skin. In college, I was the columnist everybody hated or loved. I once wrote an editorial on the joys of deer hunting, which led to the president of PETA sending me a personal letter. I am used to pissing people off through my words, and little bothers me. But there’s a frequent poster on this blog who has left me no choice but to roll up my sleeves and take a few jabs. Always referring to himself as “Anonymous,” this person said I was somebody who told lies because I work in public affairs; he doubted I was even in Iraq; he hopes I end up in a body bag; and that I should just go home before I become crippled and helpless. On one particular comment, he stated nobody likes cripples. Through his words, you can tell he is truly demented, but I have to give it to him: he’s at least consistent. That’s more than John Kerry can say. Here’s a recent comment of his…

Bold=Mr. Anonymous
Not bold=Me

What a load of BS, you are PR man,You main task is to lie, deceive,spin.Nobody in their right mind would trust such people.By the way, I suspect you probably comment on your posts as well. There cannot be some dumb people to believe your porkies.If you are in Mosul as you state, I hope you get a special gift from iraqi freedom fighters delivered right in your lying mouth.

Let’s analyze this man’s statements, shall we? First, “you are PR Man.” Hey, I like the sounds of that. Maybe, I should get a costume with “PR” embroidered on my cape and chest. My magic power could be my ability to “spin” so fast that I suck evildoers into a black hole. My service to the world would be to rid all blogs from Anonymous posters. My arch enemy could be you Mr. Anonymous, but I really think you should change your name to Bad Grammar Guy. “There cannot be some dumb people to believe your porkies.” What in the world are you trying to say man? Yes, I’ve seen Porkies if that’s what you’re getting at, but how is that relevant to Iraq. “If you are in Mosul as you state, I hope you get a special gift from Iraqi freedom fighters delivered right in your lying mouth.” OK, now you’re just getting ugly. If you’re making fun of my fat lips, you should know most girls find my puffy lips attractive. As for the Mosul part, yup, I’m here. The city is split in half by the Tigris River; there’s currently an enormous mosque under construction that’s on the side of the major freeway; there are maybe three camels in the whole city and they’re domesticated; there’s a leaning mosque by a market that’s like 3,000 years old. What else do you want to know about the city? I’ve been a resident for a year.

My first impression of this guy: a fat, bald middle-aged man who was picked on a lot. He sits around his living room, wearing nothing but underwear, eating corn flakes from a dirty bowl while he watches cartoons. Either that or he’s a radical Islamic who needs work on his English. He said he’s not American, so I surmise he has a vendetta against America and that he supports the terrorists who behead the innocent and bomb schools.

Here’s another one of Bad Grammar Guy’s comments…

You are just cannon fodder there in Iraq, nobody cares about what you think and what you feel. The best option is to leave Iraq while you are still alive, go back to your family. You do not have to fight rich man's war.There is no honor, no integrity, no just cause in occupaying Iraq.Judging by your own analysis, I presume that you are at loss who to fight, you do not understand between right or wrong, you just kill anybody you might be in some way persieved as being a threat to you or your buddies. So eventually, you will go crazy as many other vietnam vets. Grazy soldiers never win wars, they always lose. Remember Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia.You still have a choice to go back to your country, home, to your family alive and well. Nobody cares about crippled, limbless vets. They will ignore you, then pity you, then forget you.

“Cannon fodder.” Great, it looks like Bad Grammar Guy picked up some big words. Glad to see you have a pocket dictionary handy, BGG. “nobody cares about what you think and what you feel. The best option is to leave Iraq while you are still alive, go back to your family. You do not have to fight rich man's war.” Leave Iraq? Are you kidding. I’ve got a big family here, both Iraqi and American. The only rich men who have something to lose are the former Ba’athists and terrorist leaders, and right now, those are the guys filling your “web sites” with lies, not me pal. As for all your other jibber jabber, we don’t kill people to kill people. In fact, we have very strict rules of engagement. We get thrown in jail if we kill unarmed people while the terrorists get rewarded by people like you.

“Eventually, you will go crazy as many other vietnam vets.” Crazy? Come on man, I think I could easily pass a sanity test. Now, you on the other hand, we’ve got some work to do. First, go buy a six pack and swig it all down. Then, watch “Ace Ventura.” And after that, buy a Hard Rock Café shirt and come talk to me. You really need to lighten up, man. Nobody likes a comic book character with a bad temper. In order to be PR Man’s nemisis, you must have some good qualities or at least say something nice. That way, just maybe, somebody will understand your point of view. But if you still want to play unfair, remember I am PR Man and I have a cape.

Two Iraqis

Both of them were blown from their seats by the blast, which they described as, “very powerful, lots of noise and heat.” The two Iraqi soldiers were both dazed. One of them could only hear a loud ringing sound in his ears. The other couldn’t believe his eyes: Every where he looked people were gasping for air or bleeding profusely. Before the two Iraqis lay a helpless American soldier, who staggered across the smoke-filled mess hall at first only to fall on the ground. They couldn’t understand a word coming out of the American’s mouth. They only saw the blood spewing from his leg.

These two men, both in their 20s, saw carnage caused by the very people they took an oath to defend Iraq against. These two men were proud Iraqis who were trained by U.S. Army Special Forces. These two men had seen enough people die at the hands of terrorists, and on December 21, 2004, they would do everything in their power to save every person they could.

The human body has several vital points. A sharp piece of metal to the jugular and a person is gone within seconds. A shot to the temple, a person will never even know what hit him. A slug to the heart or spleen and the person’s collection of memories will flash before his or her eyes in an instant. A hit to the femoral artery leaves a person minutes, maybe hours, but their final moments will be agonizing.

The suicide bomb sprayed bb-like fragments throughout the Marez dining facility. One piece of shrapnel sliced through the femoral artery of a U.S. soldier and his only chance for survival was in the hands of these two Iraqis.

Recalling the medical classes they’d received from the special forces, the Iraqis reacted calmly, fastening a belt above the wound, creating a tourniquet, which stopped the gushing stream of red. They moved the soldier to a MEDVAC vehicle via two-man litter carry. After they hoisted the soldier in the truck, the two Iraqis – one an officer, the other an NCO – ran back to the facility and began treating the other wounded without regard for their safety.

When the dust settled and the mess tent had been evacuated, everybody who could talk was questioned about their health. When the medics came to the two Iraqis, the ING soldiers only wanted to know how everybody else was. When asked why did they do it, they simply stated, “this was our duty; we are a team, and we take care of each other.” Even the Americans.

This country needs more people like these two Iraqi soldiers. If more shared their passion and determination, the terrorist’s fear tactics of beheadings, public killings and kidnappings would not work. If more believed in their vision of Iraq, there would be no fighting; there would only be encouragement for their fellow man and peace. If more people understood their sacrifices and followed their lead, this country would not be as dependent upon others. But they can’t single handily change their country, so they decisively lead by example without trepidation.

Rather than running, they stood strong and saved a man’s life. Because of them, somebody’s son is still breathing. Right now, the U.S. Army is trying to give these two Iraqis prestigious awards. But all the Iraqis want to do is check on the soldier they saved. “I just want to make sure he is OK.”

By now, the American, who is still in the hospital recovering, knows the story of the two Iraqis. And I’m sure he looks forward to the day he can look his Iraqi brother-at-arms in the eye and say, "Thanks for saving my life."

Saturday, December 25, 2004

How did I spend Christmas?

Nestled in my fart sack, the 5 a.m. alarm came too early. I reached over and hit snooze. Ten minutes later, snooze again. Finally, at around 5:30, my scraggly butt jumped out of my sleeping bag and prepared for my 0645 mission: to follow around General Casey and General Ham as they wished troops a Merry Christmas. Top ranking generals do this all the time and they always want a photographer… Builds morale for privates to have their picture taken next to a man who has more stars than Pluto. Anyway, I normally assign this type of a mission to one of my soldiers, but it was Christmas and I wanted them to enjoy the day. Back to waking up. If you would have asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I would have said a nice, hot shower and for all my troops to be safe. Well, I got one of those. You know how it is, you turn the “hot” shower knob and you just stand there waiting for it to actually get hot. Well, I’m standing there completely nude waiting and waiting and waiting. I held my hand against the cool water, thinking that it might be hot, so I step in. Nope, my hand just got used to the water; it was cold. I didn’t take a shower. I just shaved and put on a lot of Speed Stick. “Good thing it’s not hot, because I’d hate to be stinky around the highest ranking general in Iraq. The cold air will keep in the stink,” I thought to myself still ticked off at the cold shower.

As we were leaving the compound, general H stopped at the gate to say hello to soldiers. These are the guys who have one of the hardest jobs in Iraq, always a target but never leaving their post. They do this without accolades every day. But on December 25, 2004, a guy with a star on his collar and a lot of love in his heart said thank you. They were surprised, but really appreciated the thoughts.

As we strolled through Mosul, there were a few traffic accidents. Totally forgetting I was in Iraq, I wondered if the morning radio shows would suggest alternate routes. After that very short day dream, my thoughts went back to looking for car bombs. Before I knew it, I was standing in front of General Casey with my camera strapped on my left and M-16 on the right.

We went inside the camp’s dining facility, where he randomly walked up to soldiers eating. To put this in perspective, picture yourself eating at your local diner and your state governor or the President walks up to your table and says “hey, mind if I join you?” A four star is like a God in the Army. One private talked with food still in his mouth… “Hi,” chew, chew, “sir.” Everybody stood up. “Please sit down. I just wanted to say thanks for what you’re doing.” One kid pulled me aside. “Hey, sergeant, who is that?” I felt like hitting him on the head with my camera. “That’s the commander of Multinational Forces Iraq. Duh.” “Oh, I thought that was Sanchez.” “No, he was the commander of Multinational CORPS, not Forces, Iraq and he was like three generals ago anyway.” Some people, I swear.

Then, we went to the battalion headquarters of a unit that lost several soldiers in the Marez attack. I was expecting a somber group, still saddened by their loss. Rather, they were in the holiday spirit. Christmas music, lights and Santa hats were on show for the general. He shook all their hands and asked for updates on the enemy situation. A buck sergeant pointed laser light to a map and briefed the general. Again to put this in perspective, this would be like a mail clerk of a fortune 500 company giving the CEO advice on financial investments. Only in the Army will the most senior person listen to the little guy. I guess that's what makes our military so special.

And then we loaded up in the Black Hawk to go see the soldiers at the far away, remote FOBs. I’ve flown a million times, so I don’t gawk down mesmerized at the earth from above. I normally doze off. I assumed my normal position: head tilted low, hands inside my vest and legs crossed with my Kevlar tilted and eyes closed. I think I was out for 30 minutes when I came to and what I saw scared the heck out of me. Flying over the mountains of northern Iraq, a thick fog settled around our bird. It was so bad that the pilots couldn’t see what was in front to the left or right. The gunners were sticking their heads out the window looking for something, but all they saw was a vapor condensed to fine particles of water suspended in the lower atmosphere, aka fog. Luckily, these pilots were well trained and got us out of the hairy situation. For a little bit, I thought we were about to give an Iraqi mountain top a facelift.

We landed and said hi to more troops. I took their pictures, and then we were off to meet an Iraqi dignitary who lived like a king. His home sat on 500 acres of beautiful farmland. He had a lush green garden and a marble sidewalk leading to the front door. He also had armed guards at every entrance. This guy was kind of like the Donald Trump of northern Iraq, except he wore a man dress. He made us pizza, French fries and a bunch of other food I can’t pronounce. I was starving, so I ate everything put before me except the chicken lying in a vat of orange sauce. The general and the Iraqi man talked politics while I stuffed my face. I must admit, I’m not a very neat eater. Grains of rice dribbled off the plate and I smeared tomato paste on my cheek. The general’s aide gave me a funny look. “Boy, where did you learn how to eat?” Hey, I grew up in Oklahoma, pal, let me eat. It was actually a nice Christmas dinner despite most of it ending up in my lap.

I don’t remember much of the flight back, because I was sleeping. When I landed at the camp, everybody said Merry Christmas and seemed to be in good spirits. So, despite the cold shower, it turned out to not be a bad Christmas after all.


Friday, December 24, 2004

Who is to blame?

Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham is a man of integrity, honor and is one man I would follow anywhere. He sent Christmas letters to the family members of every Task Force Olympia soldier. He knows my soldiers by their first names. And he is the first person to visit a wounded soldier. He is a great man. Yesterday, in our studio, he told CNN that he blames himself for the suicide bomber incident at Marez when in fact it’s anybody’s fault but his own.

Everybody is asking how a person could “infiltrate” our FOB and detonate a bomb. The talking heads: “Are the military bases susceptible for more of these kinds of attacks? How did this happen? Is there not enough security on our bases? How could a general let this happen?”

I don’t think people realize that we have anywhere from 100 to 1,000 local workers on any base, and that we search every single one of them. Yes, we have found numerous contraband on locals before. Yes, we work side-by-side Iraqis, whom we emplace our trust. We search them too, and we’ve also detained them for insurgent activity. The problem with this war is we don’t have a defined enemy, and those who are supposed to be our allies often run and hide until the fighting is over.

Who is the enemy? Well, for one, they don’t wear a uniform and two, we are trying to give these people freedom, which means while we’re killing bad guys, we’re also employing people who look no different than the ones we’re killing. This war is hard. In Korea, Vietnam and WWII, we knew who we were fighting to some extent. Yesterday, I had guard duty and rather than looking for a uniformed soldier, I looked for an enemy who looks just like the people we’re helping. Imagine playing basketball with a group of total strangers, with everybody wearing white T-shirts. You have no idea who’s on your team. Well, that’s our challenge; we don’t know who we can pass the ball to.

As we’ve tried to give the Iraqis the lead in the security of this area, we have seen their shortcomings and a few victories. Freedom is earned, not given. And if this country is to succeed, its people must step up. When the terrorists, insurgents or whatever you want to call them attacked the police stations last month, the Iraqi Police abandoned their post. Then, Iraqi National Guard went into those stations along with us and regained control of the city. (So, as I said, there are Iraqis who will fight for freedom. I just wish there were more.) Many of the Mosul Imams are crooked, encouraging the locals to stand up against us or kill the Iraqis who work for us. I don’t understand this at all; they’re supposed to be holy.

Back to the suicide bomb, how could somebody pass our checkpoints, get by our guards and possibly bring a bomb inside a protected mess hall. Well, I don’t have the answers for you. I can tell you that it’s not Gen. Ham’s fault. All I know is that we are doing everything we can to win this war; I just don’t think the Iraqis have.


Thursday, December 23, 2004

Thank you

Every Friday, I write a column for a radio station in Milwaukee. Much like this site, I try to share positive news and my feelings. It’s read on the air by a very supportive news reporter. Unlike this blog, where I conceal my identity, they use my name and occasionally give out my email address. I had no idea how many people listened to my letters until Tuesday when the explosion occurred and citizens confirmed my safety. A Milwaukee t.v. station interviewed a friend of mine and her family. Her brother has an Afro, which I’ve encouraged him to grow and grow and grow. She said the television screen barely fit his whole head. That’s my boy, I thought, when I heard of the news of his Afro making the big time. She claims nothing but good things were said about me, but I hope she didn’t share the time I farted on her. That definitely wouldn’t be good PR.

Then, there were the readers of this blog, who emailed me and posted very kind comments. My mom and dad’s co-workers. The “pool” from Texas. My fraternity brothers. My fellow Okie State alums. And my co-workers in the states. People have been so supportive of my writing and my mission as an Army journalist that it truly is touching.

Soon, I will be packing my bags and heading home. Of course, I look forward to this moment, but I will miss sharing my views of the “Iraq happenings.” In a previous comment from a reader, they said I was a gifted writer. Like Steinbeck and Hemingway, I really don’t feel that way. I feel like it’s my duty to just say how I feel. I guess, my dad taught me this long ago: that sometimes you just have to express your feelings. Of course, he was talking about girls, but I think it’s applicable to all walks of like.

I would like to thank everybody who’s read this blog and or has sent me kind words. Those who post comments every day – kim, justamom, Kayla, ac – your words of encouragement go a long way. A couple days ago, I felt more anguish than I ever have. But as I’ve said before, we are here because of Americans. And it is the Americans who keep us motivated and on track. We keep photos of our loved ones on us at all times.

People think that you have to join the military to serve your country. I disagree. In my opinion, anybody who raises a family, holds a steady job or just opens the door for a stranger is serving America. Sure, servicemen are the ones who fight for freedom, but normal everyday Americans sustain our liberties by just living a good life.

To the janitor who wakes up every morning at 0300 and jumps in his car to travel to his not-so glamorous job, thank you. To the single mom who chose the road less traveled despite her friend’s recommendations of giving berth to a child while she was still a child, thank you. To the dad who worked three jobs just to raise his family, thank you. To the farmer who tilled the soil just as his father did, thank you. To you, the normal everyday American, I want to say thanks for everything. You have served America more than you will know.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Mosul blast: not the numbers, but the people

There they sat, enjoying lunch. Knowing the Marez’s menu, they either had beef stew, a turkey sandwich or maybe a cheesecake. No doubt, the food we’ve enjoyed in this conflict is comparable to a Luby’s rather than the traditional military mess hall. Their conversations were probably about football, guard duty and somebody who ticked ’em off. Some of them spoke Arabic, others English with Southern, British, East-Coast or Cool-dude West-Coast accents.

And then it happened. An unidentified explosion erupted and took the lives of civilians, Iraqis, Americans, Soldiers. People of different nationalities, from different countries and in Iraq for different reasons, all paid the ultimate sacrifice. I don’t care what color their skin was or what language they spoke, the people killed shed their blood for a free Iraq and to rid this world of terrorists. We’ve fielded more than 200 media inquiries the past 24 hours and more are sure to come. The reporters are just doing their job, a difficult job: reporting the horrific occurrences in a war zone. For the most part, they’ve done a good job reporting on this incident. But, right now, they’re all caught up in learning the numbers and how it happened. I’d like to tell you about the people who died and those who saved the lives of many…

They may have just plopped lumps of mashed potatoes on our Styrofoam trays, but their callused hands cooked and served the food that fueled our soldiers from dawn until dusk; and they did it with pride. They may have just latched multi-ton trailers to the hitch of a diesel truck and driven it up and down Iraqi highways, but they brought us the necessary tools to win this war. They may have just signed up for college, but they laced their boots up when their name was called to defend America.

Whether they knew it, these people who lost their lives yesterday stood for something. They were bold and daring for tackling a job that required long hours in a very dangerous place. Sure, they were well-compensated, but every contractor, interpreter and Turkish worker I’ve talked to said they don’t do it for the money. And the soldiers, well, they do it for love of country.

The horrific scene within the facility I only saw through classified photographs taken by one of my soldiers, who is forever changed by yesterday’s events. (SIDE NOTE: I’m so proud of her for not only volunteering for such a difficult assignment, but the way she bravely looked fear in the face and captured the perfect images that will be used solely for investigative purposes.) I’ve been in that mess hall a million times, but in these photos, the usual sight of smiling faces was replaced with images I choose not to fully describe. It was a horrible sight, but the moments after the blast is what I would like to remember.

Within seconds of the explosion, wounded soldiers provided aid to their buddies. Many of those giving treatment would normally have been considered urgent, but not this day. The gaping wounds in their legs and arms would have to wait; their buddies, who suffered severe head and gut wounds, needed their help. Many more lives would had been lost if it weren’t for the first responders and medics who patched and resuscitated the fallen. The media’s tabbed this attack the “Mosul Massacre.” I prefer to call it the “Mosul Miracle.” We had the wounded on hummers and medical vehicles and in the hospital within minutes, where the Army doctors began performing miracles.

As with every tragedy America has faced in the past decade – the Oklahoma City Bombing, World Trade Center & Pentagon Attacks – people (Americans, Iraqis, Turkish) bonded to save human life. We are all in Iraq for that reason: To preserve freedom and human life. And when a person is right there in front of you dying, you can either run away and cry in a corner or you do whatever it takes to save the father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter who lies before you helpless. The Army medics and untrained civilians did everything they could. God only knows how many people still have a heart beat because of their efforts.

Yesterday was indeed the worst day of my 26 years; I feel so horrible and can’t fully explain why. I wasn’t there, but a piece of me was lost. I would gladly give my life just to have those people back. A lot of my fellow soldiers feel that way. We ask ourselves why our life was spared. Again, only God knows. You can’t help but feel guilty, but the mission must continue…

“I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.” These are not just words. These are facts; our ethos. As our soldiers proved yesterday and continue today and will tomorrow, we live by these words.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Magazine interview

Recently, a PR magazine emailed asking a lot of questions. Here were the answers I submitted today...

1) What country/area are you stationed in?
Iraq – in the northern city of Mosul. This area is home of the Nimrod ruins and the ancient city of Ninevah. It’s historical significance can be found in the Bible. At first look, the city is quite breathtaking. Three thousand year old buildings. Huge mosques. The Tigris River. And ancient sculptures. It’s a place I plan to visit when I retire – 20 years from now.

2) What is your primary duty?
I have three primary functions: lead and mentor Soldiers, tell the Army story through photos and stories and implement the commanding general’s intent. Just like in the civilian world, we have a thorough communications and crisis plan. Within every one of our stories, we have command messages, which focus on Iraqi Security forces, governance and infrastructure. It’s my job to ensure one of these three initiatives is represented in every story that leaves Mosul.

3) What has been the most rewarding experience from your time abroad?
Well, there are so many, it’s hard to choose. I would say there’s one particular event that really sticks out. I was covering a school opening. The school had no electricity, shoddy desks, blackboards and the teachers had no books or curriculum to teach from. We rebuilt the school, furnishing it with desks and supplied them with hundreds of books. Before we did this, the children attempted to learn in a concrete building that had no air conditioning. Imagine taking finals in 130 degree temperatures. The children were so thankful that one child wrote an essay in English. He read it to the soldiers. He spoke better English than I did at 12 – that’s for sure. It was a very touching moment.

4) What do you miss most about the states?
Obviously, I miss my family and friends. Before I left, I knew these people were special, but their support throughout this deployment has made me feel very loved. I miss my job a lot too. Bader Rutter is a special work place. I was considered the prankster around the office. I’d switch people’s name plates and commit all kinds of April Fool’s pranks. I can’t wait to start another devious string of jokes on my co-workers.

5) When do you expect to be home?
Early 2005.

6) Who would you like to send your holiday wishes to?
Every American. People always tell me “Thank you for what you’re doing.” All Americans must realize that we serve the United States because of the great people in our beloved country. The Freedoms we enjoy are unlike any other country. I never want my family or friends to have those liberties taken away. That’s why we do what we do. But since I know that mostly PR pros read this, I want to say hi to all my friends at Bader Rutter in Milwaukee, Wis., and my former professors who believed in me at Oklahoma State.

7) What was your last (if any) public sector job?
Most of my career has been spent in the private sector. However, I spend much of my spare time working with kids. I tutor fifth graders for the Milwaukee Rescue Mission and volunteer for a college prep program for underprivileged kids called Upward Bound, at which I was once a member of.

8) What have you learned about public affairs/public relations from your work abroad?
I’ve learned how incredibly important our job is during war. The media doesn’t paint a pretty picture and certainly doesn’t always tell the whole story. Without us constantly engaging the media and sending our positive news stories to the world, I know there would be a huge loss – because the stories of school openings would probably never be told. For the most part, the media wants to focus on only one aspect of Iraq, and that’s the fighting. There’s more to our mission than just killing terrorists. We are training Iraqi Security forces, rebuilding infrastructure and preparing a government to take over their country.

9) What is the biggest challenge you face in your job?
My biggest challenge has also been the most rewarding. Managing soldiers is much different than managing an account and team members at a public relations firm. I manage a team of five very young soldiers, who put there life on the line every single day. At a firm, people get stressed out because the client isn’t happy with a project or they don’t have enough budget. Here, every mission is dangerous and our unit has executed more than 1,000. At my civilian job, I jump in my Altima every morning and take I-94 to work worry free. In Iraq, any time you are on the road, you could be ambushed, hit with a roadside bomb or car bomb. We are all prepared and ready to pull the trigger if need be, but as a leader, it’s important that I keep my soldiers aware of the risks and eyes on the bigger picture of what we’re doing. We’ve all had friends killed and many of us have had extremely close calls. When something like this happens, the soldiers need a sounding board. I am that guy. They can easily lose focus and wander off course. I always listen to them and encourage them. No matter what happens, the mission must continue. Each of my soldiers has proven themselves in a very stressful environment. The oldest is 23 and the youngest 21, but judging by their actions and work, you could never guess they were just college kids. We’ve all grown up in the last year.

10) What is different about communicating to a US audience, and communicating where you are stationed?
There is a huge difference in culture. Obviously, a lot of words do not translate and you have to be cognizant of this. In addition, Americans enjoy long, in-depth features. Iraqi newspapers only want snippets of information. But, people are people. For the most part, Iraqis want to know what we’ve done for them. So we tell them and they typically run our three or four paragraphs.

11) Do you enjoy what you do?
I love my job, because of the impact we make on Soldiers’ families. I’ve received countless emails from family members who have read my work. It’s difficult for families to watch the news with all the carnage displayed. They go to our web site to download our video interviews and read our news stories. One email I received read, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You really depicted my son perfectly. We are so proud of him.” Those words made everything worth while. I also love mentoring soldiers. From teaching soldiers how to shoot an M-16 to correcting their passive sentences, teaching soldiers is a joy. The difference between a civilian job is that in the civilian world, you never really teach your subordinate everything you know. In the military, if you don’t teach your soldiers everything, then you’re failing them. I’m lucky to have soldiers who are eager to learn.

12) Is the US winning the communications battle abroad?
I think so, especially in Mosul. First, you must understand how our enemy uses information. They tape beheadings and hand out threatening letters to citizens warning them not to work with us. Their tactic is fear. We combat this by flooding the media with positive stories about the Iraqi Security forces and Iraqi kids enjoying new schools. We also have advertised and placed billboards throughout the city. We embellished the city with the face of an Iraqi Olympic soccer player. The idea was to get people to rally behind sport, much like we do in the states. We’ve also helped the local media financially and journalistically. After major crisis, like car bombs, we have reacted with quick live interviews of the local governor with the Arabic stations. We typically beat the wire services with our press releases. And everything we release is factual. The enemy, however, has a different set of standards. The majority of their information is nothing but lies. In November, the media reported that Mosul had been overrun by insurgents and that Multinational Forces had left. They received their information from the terrorists, and we quickly made sure the corrected their stories by simply telling them the truth: We had not left and we were very much in control of the city.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Care packages

Care packages equal morale in Iraq. In the last three days, I’ve received Christmas packages from all my friends, family and ex-girlfriends. My room has as many boxes as it does dirty clothes. It’s a pig sty right now, but in a good way. I feel so loved!

However, over the past 11 months, I’ve received some strange things from folks. Take for example, these luscious brownies I received. Still moist, the dark morsels of chocolate made my mouth salivate and instantly hungry when I opened the box. Also inside was soap, toothbrushes and deodorant… a very typical care package. But when the box travels thousands of miles in the suffocating heat, there’s a colligation of the package’s innards. When my teeth sunk into the sweet, soft fudge brownie, my tongue didn’t touch a pleasant surface. Rather, my taste buds were subjected to “Zest” fully clean. Talk about a surprise. What’s more is the soap smelled like brownies and the toothbrushes had something growing on them. I’m sure a scientist would have loved to examine the package. For all I know, the cure for AIDS could have been in there.

Another time, my buddies sent me condoms. I thought to myself, “What the hell am I going to do with these things?” They were extra small. Real funny, guys.

Somebody once sent me a pair of jeans and T-shirt. I haven’t worn civilian clothes in a year. Of course, with all mail I receive, I am just thankful somebody took the time and cared enough about me. But seriously you have to laugh.

I’ve received 423 toothbrushes, 80 bars of soap and more baby wipes than Bill Clinton has illegitimate children. I always seem to run low on razors, but I have a theory for that. Razors are expensive. Don’t take this the wrong way, again, I love every piece of mail I receive, but people tend to have a main effort piece and then stuff the rest of the box with lesser supporting materials. The main effort could be a homemade loaf of banana bread or a Game Boy. The supporting elements are usually life’s essentials: personal hygiene products (Q-tips, toilet paper, etc.) and for some reason, everybody keeps sending me lotion. Back to my theory, the supporting goods usually still have the price tag on them when the more expensive items’ label is scratched out or peeled off. Take for example this IPOD was sent with three 30 cent packages of mint, wintergreen and strawberry chewing gum. The IPOD probably cost around $200, but the person didn’t want me knowing how much they spent. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just funny.

Also, when somebody sends a package, I sometimes forget to tell them I received it. After about two months of waiting for me to say “thanks for the package,” they send me a note, “hey, uh, we sent you a package a year ago. Have you gotten it?” Even if I haven’t, I say yes. I’ll be honest, mail gets lost. Mail trucks have been blown up, mortars have caught mail on fire and sometimes a box ends up in the corner of a Saudi Arabian hotel janitor closet. I know it would hurt my feelings if I spent all kinds of time picking out stuff to send to a soldier in Iraq, only to learn the package didn’t make it. This is their way of saying thanks.

That’s why I thoroughly enjoy every piece of mail I get, even if the brownies do taste like soap.

Care packages

Care packages equal morale in Iraq. In the last three days, I’ve received Christmas packages from all my friends, family and ex-girlfriends. My room has as many boxes as it does dirty clothes. It’s a pig sty right now, but in a good way. I feel so loved!

However, over the past 11 months, I’ve received some strange things from folks. Take for example, these luscious brownies I received. Still moist, the dark morsels of chocolate made my mouth salivate and instantly hungry when I opened the box. Also inside was soap, toothbrushes and deodorant… a very typical care package. But when the box travels thousands of miles in the suffocating heat, there’s a colligation of the package’s innards. When my teeth sunk into the sweet, soft fudge brownie, my tongue didn’t touch a pleasant surface. Rather, my taste buds were subjected to “Zest” fully clean. Talk about a surprise. What’s more is the soap smelled like brownies and the toothbrushes had something growing on them. I’m sure a scientist would have loved to examine the package. For all I know, the cure for AIDS could have been in there.

Another time, my buddies sent me condoms. I thought to myself, “What the hell am I going to do with these things?” They were extra small. Real funny, guys.

Somebody once sent me a pair of jeans and T-shirt. I haven’t worn civilian clothes in a year. Of course, with all mail I receive, I am just thankful somebody took the time and cared enough about me. But seriously you have to laugh.

I’ve received 423 toothbrushes, 80 bars of soap and more baby wipes than Bill Clinton has illegitimate children. I always seem to run low on razors, but I have a theory for that. Razors are expensive. Don’t take this the wrong way, again, I love every piece of mail I receive, but people tend to have a main effort piece and then stuff the rest of the box with lesser supporting materials. The main effort could be a homemade loaf of banana bread or a Game Boy. The supporting elements are usually life’s essentials: personal hygiene products (Q-tips, toilet paper, etc.) and for some reason, everybody keeps sending me lotion. Back to my theory, the supporting goods usually still have the price tag on them when the more expensive items’ label is scratched out or peeled off. Take for example this IPOD was sent with three 30 cent packages of mint, wintergreen and strawberry chewing gum. The IPOD probably cost around $200, but the person didn’t want me knowing how much they spent. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just funny.

Also, when somebody sends a package, I sometimes forget to tell them I received it. After about two months of waiting for me to say “thanks for the package,” they send me a note, “hey, uh, we sent you a package a year ago. Have you gotten it?” Even if I haven’t, I say yes. I’ll be honest, mail gets lost. Mail trucks have been blown up, mortars have caught mail on fire and sometimes a box ends up in the corner of a Saudi Arabian hotel janitor closet. I know it would hurt my feelings if I spent all kinds of time picking out stuff to send to a soldier in Iraq, only to learn the package didn’t make it. This is their way of saying thanks.

That’s why I thoroughly enjoy every piece of mail I get, even if the brownies do taste like soap.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


Luckily, I fixed the problem. But in the last 24 hours, hackers tapped into my blog and posted 30 posts. I deleted all of them and tightened the security on the site, but just in case you read something that sounds anti-American or anti-Soldier know it wasn't me who wrote it.

The workers who clean our toilets, do our laundry and make our food

They serve our food, do our laundry and clean our latrines. Essentially, they are our maids and I don’t feel they get the credit they deserve. At nearly every base, hundreds of local nationals work for us. In addition, there are a ton of Turkish and Pilipino workers taking care of the little things that make our life easier.

Not once in the past 11 months have I done the one thing I dread most in life – laundry. Not once have I had to take a sponge to a toilet, mopping up people’s bio-hazardous leftovers. And not once have I had to stand over a stack of soiled dishes during KP duty.

In many respects, these guys are serving our cause just as much as the infantry soldiers on patrol. While they receive little pay, the workers on post are just as much at risk as we are – if not more. A couple months ago, several Turkish workers were killed during mortar attacks. This makes eating chow a little difficult, because now when they here any type of explosion, the Turkish guys run for the bunkers and stay there for three to four hours. They are shell shocked, and there have been times that the large tubs of chow have been left unattended because the workers are too nervous. The local Iraqis who work for us are constantly receiving death threats. The terrorists follow the workers to their homes and kill them.

Once a guy who bought our fresh vegetables was beheaded for working with us. They video taped his death. I saw it. A fat, masked Arabic man stood over the vegetable man’s lifeless, headless body and said “this is what will happen to you if you work with the Americans.” Of course, back in September, my good friend Samir – our interpreter – was gunned down by terrorists. They no doubt would have beheaded him, as they first captured him, but he escaped. He ran through the city he grew up in and was shot in the back and died in the same area he was born. He believed in this country’s future and was willing to do whatever it took to create a free Iraq – even paying the ultimate sacrifice.

In fact, most of the workers are here not just for the adequate pay, but because they support us. It helps that we’ve caught or killed a lot of the people threatening them. But just like the days of Troy – with the Trojan Horse – all warfighters are suspicious of the people working for us. For all we know, they could be pacing off mortar impact areas as they sweep our streets. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what they do for us, but I am still very skeptical. There was a point that we had a slew of workers killed and in my opinion, somebody had to be on the inside identifying the workers and interpreters.

Nonetheless, I treat the workers with respect and dignity as do all the other soldiers. We just keep a close eye on them. And I’m of the opinion that you can kill hate with kindness. For the most part, I am very friendly to the workers. I shake their right hands – not their left. I try to teach them English. I give them candy. And I always smile.

This ends up back firing on me sometimes. Once, an Iraqi man asked if I’d like to “Fecki, Fecki.” I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked our interpreter. He grinned and said, “he wants to have sex with you.” In the states, my friends tease me because gay men tend to ask me out. If I wanted to, I’m sure I could be on the cover of “Gay Pride.” I’ve been hit on by more men than women, and now I’ve been propositioned in Iraq. I’m straight and after I nearly gagged, I made sure the Iraqi understood that. Of course, I also told him thanks for serving his country – even if he did hit on me.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Love, the military and personals

I have this soldier. He’s the quiet, silent type who’ll smart off like you wouldn’t believe. He’s gotten his share of push ups from me, but I have to tell you: this kid knows how to play his “I’m in Iraq” card with the women. He posted his mug on a personals site, saying he’s in Iraq and constantly in danger. And man, oh man, is it paying off. This boy gets more mail in a week than I’ve gotten all year. One girl who writes him puts hearts on the envelopes and sends three letters a day. Psycho!

He receives anywhere from 10 to 50 emails a day from girls, telling him how brave he is and how they’d like to meet for “coffee.” He put a picture of himself on Hot or Not dot com, and he’s a bloody 9 just because he’s wearing a uniform. This kid purchased a cell phone just so he could call the hotter ones on his time off. His door’s often locked. Hmmmm.

Now, I’m no Brad Pitt, but I’d like to think I could hold my own with the ladies. After all, I did win third place in my high school male beauty pageant. Hey, blue eyes will take you places in this ol’ world. As this guy is quickly becoming the next Tom Cruise on personal sites, I am beginning to wonder if I have taken advantage of all the opportunities this deployment has given me.

I’ve seen the movies and heard all the stories about women loving men in uniform. To be honest, that hasn’t worked for me over the years. See, I’m not your typical man in uniform. I am insecure because I have my mother’s hips and I just need somebody who’ll listen to me and hold me. OK, I’ll cut the crap. Before I deployed, I was a walking box of tissues. I’d tell a girl I’m going to Iraq, and oh man, look at the time, shoot, I’ve gotta go. Uhhh, I left the stove on. Girls, who didn’t already know me, were afraid to get close. Some would stay distant, but wanted my email. Others just wanted me for one thing. And I have too much respect for myself to be used by women!!

To be honest, I’ve seen the strain war puts on a relationship. Two people have to be very strong to survive. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about husbands not hearing from their wives for three weeks. The next time they call, they hear another man’s voice “who’s that.” I was assigned to an infantry squad back in April, and I learned that every soldier’s wife in this squad was cheating on them. It’s not like these guys could seek retribution by pounding down a few cold ones and whipping the adulator. Nope, day in and day out, they had to worry about staying alive. What kind of person cheats on their Army husband anyway?

I’ve seen the other side too. I have another soldier who met her fiancée at a military school. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody more in love than this girl and vice versa. She occasionally relays nice messages he sends and I think wow, this war has made them stronger. Her fiancée was in Fallujah at the heart of all the battles there, and she wanted to go be with him. Imagine telling that to your kids some day… “Son, I knew your mother was the one when she hitched a ride to Fallujah to take pictures with me. She swam through the Tigris River and climbed rooftops just to be with me. And now, she won’t even compliment my hair color.”

For me, I’m just happy being single. I could post my face on a web site, but my plan is a little different. But I won’t tell; I’m the mysterious type.

Monday, December 13, 2004

All veterans are forever linked

A Vietnam vet friend of mine told me a year ago, “People will shake your hand. Thank you for your service. And say they will write you every day. They’ll send care packages the first couple months, and after a while, they will forget all about you. Once you’ve been in Iraq for six months, the people will have gone on with their lives as if you were never even a part of it. That’s life as a soldier, son. We do the dirty work, so everybody else can enjoy life. We see blood and shed tears, while civilians debate the war. We get blamed for killing children, while the civilians attempt to understand the enemy and form an opinion that the enemy has a just cause. You are going into the same thing I experienced, and I really feel for you because you will never be the same again.”

His rugged, wrinkled face twitched as he discussed difficult memories. His words were sharp, decisive and sad. His frizzled grey hair, beady black eyes and two-inch bifocals might give somebody the impression that he was a crazy mad man, but in reality, he was a veteran of a war that scarred him for life.

I look back on the conversation with my old friend, and think he was right on target with most things. He was right about civilians debating how and why we should do everything, and he was right about getting blamed for killing civilians. But he was off the mark when he said my friends would forget me. Vietnam was a different time and I believe our country is ashamed of our actions in the 1960s, and the people are trying to make up for the embarrassing acts committed by hippies and racists. My friends have been incredible throughout this deployment. I’ve heard from people from high school, ex-girlfriends and people I’ve never even met. My weekly emails and (this) blog get sent all over the world. I’ve become that guy… “I have a friend I work with who has a brother who used to know this guy who worked for his dad who has a son in Iraq.” One day, I received a reply from an old lady in California who read my forwarded emails. I followed the chain and realized it had been forwarded 75 times!

When I stepped off the plane for leave, random business women, construction workers and old vets bought my lunch and thanked me profusely. I wish my Vietnam friend would have experienced this kind of support. While I can’t change how the people acted in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I can stay true to my brothers of foreign wars.

I plan to become a member of VFW, and thank every fellow veteran for their sacrifices. As a kid, I never appreciated what they did during WWII and Vietnam and Korea and Desert Storm. But now that I am a little more seasoned, I understand. I can see how somebody could go to war and totally flip out when they return to the states, eventually becoming homeless. One thing is for sure, I won’t make fun of the next homeless Vietnam vet I see. It’s easy for people to say, “that was 30 years ago. Get on with your life. Get a job.” Those people probably never held their best friend in their arms as he bled to death, while bullets fly and mortars land all around. The next time I see a raggedy man in old fatigues with a sign that reads “Homeless vet needs work,” I will first quiz him for military knowledge (just to ensure he’s not a shamster). If he is indeed a veteran, I’ll extend my right hand, say thanks and find a job for the man.

My friend was right; I never will be the same. Before this, I probably wouldn’t have even acknowledged a homeless vet’s existence. Now, I’m forever linked to him.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

German reporter named Inga

I occasionally get tasked to escort media. “Sergeant, you need to pick up a German reporter named Inga. She’s waiting at the gate,” I heard today from my commander. Normally, I despise this job and look forward to escorting media as much as I do taking a cold shower in the dark. Once, I baby sat two foreign media on a combat operation. We were running and the videographer fell in a hole. He had his eye stuck in the view finder not watching where he was going. I listened to him whine for two straight days about how his leg was hurting. Another time, I had to drive really slowly in a very bad part of town just so a FOX cameraman could get the perfect pan of an ancient building. He didn’t like the shot, so we backed up and did it again. “Slow it down, so he can get the shot,” said the “famous” reporter. The only thing I could think about was getting hit while this idiot took his time. I purposely hit a couple of bumps. Take that, famous man.

Today’s mission was different, however. A German girl named Inga was at the gate waiting for me. How many times does this happen in one’s lifetime? We’ve all seen the “movies.” Girls named Inga are typically… how should I put this… nice looking. Of course, I am a gentleman and under orders to not make “relations” with reporters or nationals, so I was completely professional during our encounter. To my surprise, she was middle aged and spoke three languages. She was nice and had a great personality! I envisioned a six-foot-tall, blonde-hair, blue-eyed Inga. The real Inga didn’t meet this description, but was the nicest reporter I’ve met to date. We had a long conversation about the Germans and why they don’t support our involvement in Iraq. She mentioned there was a large contingent of the older Germans who stood behind us, reminding the younger generation that we were there for them in WWII.

She asked how the situation was in Mosul. Loaded question. I could say the obvious. I could talk about the negatives. Or I could talk about the things at which I’m truly passionate about and believe in. I’ve answered this question a million times, and I always seem to add something. Once, I compared the Iraqi leaders to our country’s fore fathers and the current conflict to the Revolution. That response didn’t work. Then, I said Iraqis were completely ready to takeover back in May. I believed that, but it turned out to be a lie. My final answer starts out “we are accomplishing a lot of things here. We’ve built schools, trained thousands of Iraqi soldiers, refurbished hospitals, supplied veterinarians, but it all comes down to the Iraqis stepping up to the plate. We can only do so much for this country. One day, we will leave Iraq and it will be in the people’s hands. With that being said, there’s no task the American Soldier cannot achieve. And we have built a solid relationship with the Iraqi leaders and I have faith that in the end, everything will work out.” If I were stuck in a 50-foot-deep hole, I would never doubt that I could get out. I guess you could say I will forever be optimistic about everything. A veteran reporter, Inga could see this, took her notes and didn’t bother to ask negative questions. I appreciated that.

As the final words rolled off my tongue, Inga smiled and offered me some German chocolate. It was quite tasty.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Iraq version of Office Space

When I’m not out humping a ruck and photographing the infantry or other soldier types, my bottom sits in a chair, behind a desk in one of Saddam’s former palaces. Lined with marble flooring, exotic Arabic paintings, 24-karot gold trim and mahogany ceilings, this place might give the impression that we’re in an exotic resort rather than Saddam’s former vacation home.

The last couple days, I’ve been in the office just waiting for something exciting to happen, so I can go cover it. Occasionally, I just gaze at the walls and unaligned tile, thinking about what I’ll do when I get home or what I’ll eat for chow. During today’s random thoughts, I realized how similar my office setting is to the movie “Office Space.” There’s faulty equipment, annoying people, pranks pulled and loud explosions.

For starters, half of our equipment, such as printers and scanners, were purchased on the Iraqi market. All Iraqi products require 220 power. As the Iraqis say, “No problem. All our power is 220.” This works out great for the Iraqi printers and computers, but for the equipment brought from the U.S., it’s a problem. See, most American electronics require 100-200 v power. Plug one of those into an Iraqi outlet, and you just lost yourself a $500 printer. But there are step down converters to take care of that issue. Only you need a funny looking plug-in to plug into the step down, which is purchased on the Iraqi market as well. Once we were taking photos in the general’s office for Christmas cards and the Iraqi power strip – which was connected to a step down converter, which was connected to an extension cord, which was connected to a generator – started melting. “Do you smell something burning, sergeant?” the general asked. Another time we tried setting up a broadcast studio at a remote location and plugged it into what we thought was 110 power and boom, just like that the one piece of equipment vital to our mission was fried. The movie Office Space had one, lousy printer making a mockery of them. We have tons and tons of wires and power sources causing us problems. I remember an electrician once told me that none of the power in this country was grounded. Power in Mosul is about as consistent John Kerry’s voting record. I recall a late-night guard duty shift I had when the city looked like blinking Christmas lights. I overlooked a neighborhood of about 2,500 square homes and the power was on, then it was off, then on, then off. This went on for four hours. It got me in the mood for Christmas – that was in April. Since then, we have spent millions making this city’s power situation much better.

Also like Office Space, I have several bosses. In the military, anybody who outranks you can be your boss. I can’t say that I genuinely hate any of the people I work for, but man, when they want something, they want it and want it now. “Print that photo off in an 8 x 10,” said a full bird colonel who could crush me like an ant. “Uh, sir, we don’t have any ink.” This was overheard by somebody lower ranking than the full bird, but outranked me. “Sergeant, don’t you give a field-grade officer an excuse. You do what he says.” The day before we were told not to print anymore photos, because we were running low on ink. So, I printed the damn photo for the full bird. The person who gave the order saw me printing the photo. “What are you doing printing photos? I specifically told you not to print photos. We’re almost out ink.” “But ma’am, a full bird ask..” “I don’t care. They need to run it through the proper channels.” That day, I received three butt chewings.

As mentioned in a previous post, the soldiers in my unit are pranksters. Right now, my desk is looking like a low-budget hair care salon. For whatever reason, people started putting beauty products on my desk. I have tampons, herbal shampoo, tooth brushes and Covergirl “clean makeup” along with 40 different other products. I dish out the pranks too. We kidnapped one of our sergeant’s stuffed animals and randomly placed ransom notes on her desk. We took photos of “Tinky Winky” being held prisoner with its eyes and mouth duck taped. We even had Iraqi Policemen point their AKs at the doll. The animal was traded for five green M&Ms and a few other items. However, as she will soon learn, Tinky and its children have been kidnapped again.

No doubt, we have a lot of fun in this office. Hey, we’re in Iraq and we have to stay sane somehow.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Outgoing artillery

Outgoing. It’s a great thing, but scary. If you don’t know that there are great big cannons nearby about to fire and you suddenly hear a really loud boom and your body is vibrating from the atmospheric pressure change and you’re used to hearing mortars impact and bombs detonated, outgoing can make you crap your pants. I had to change underwear three times today.

Here I sit in my perfectly safe chair, inside the perfectly safe palace, on the perfectly safe camp, and as I write this post, artillery shells are leaving a very large steel tube, also known as a Howitzer, causing so much vibration that the palace windows shake and I flinch. The noise is much different than an explosion, but it doesn’t matter, anything loud equals a flinch and a sprint to the bunkers (if I’m not under a hardstand).

There went another one. Flinch. Flinch.

Think you’ve got sleeping problems? Try sleeping when the artillery boys feel like sending those huge 155 mm artillery shells at midnight. Once I hit my head so hard on the bunk after feeling my trailer shake that I cut the top of my head. Then, I ran to the bunkers bare-footed over the thick travel. My feet hurt worse than my head that day. Gosh, those rocks are jagged, especially late at night when loud booms are echoing.

After about two or three rounds, however, you get the idea that it’s not enemy fire and it’s safe to do whatever. Another one. Flinch. Flinch.

I remember in training environments the artillery soldiers would conduct fire missions, laying lead down range, while we (infantry) moved about in the woods. Never once did I flinch or get nervous about the loud, thunder-like sounds of artillery. But then again that was training. This is for real. Here, people die from incoming. A lack of reaction time could mean difference between life and death. If you hear one impact, you’re bound to hear a second and third and fourth.

So, I’ll just keep on flinching and running to the bunkers. I just hope I don’t flinch too much when I get home. I don’t want people thinking I have a nervous twitch.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Muslim extremists

How are we different than the people we’re fighting? Well, we don’t kill people just because of their religious preference. We don’t behead people. We don’t celebrate the death of a leader just because we didn’t agree with their ideals. We don’t kill animals and then place explosives in the carcasses and then place the animal on the roadside awaiting for a convoy to pass to detonate the bomb. Our enemy is warped to the point that I can’t fathom their reasoning.

Today in Mosul, terrorists went inside a Christian church and set it on fire. They did the same yesterday. Why? I haven’t a clue. Surprisingly, I wasn’t called upon to take photos, so I can’t tell you what the House of God looked like, but I can tell you how I feel about the matter.

First, I am a Christian, albeit not the perfect follower, but who is. There are maybe 10 churches in Mosul and I’ve met quite a few Iraqi Christians. Their beliefs are based on the Bible and Jesus, but you get the sense that they still have a strong Muslim influence. The men grow the typical Arabic mustache and most of them don’t eat pork. Needless to say, they face great dangers in this country for just following their beliefs. I remember back in April when a girl gave her life to Christ, after being a Muslim her entire life, at one of our military services. She was one of our translators. The next day, she was shot in the back, probably because she worked for us and not her newfound beliefs. At any rate, in my opinion, this war is just as much a religious war as it is on terror. The people we’re fighting would very much like to execute every Christian, which we won’t allow.

In America, we allow any religion as long as it doesn’t equate to violence. In the Arabic countries, the government, cities and schools revolve around Islam. Like with Christianity, this religion is supposed to be peaceful. But you always have the extremists, who think anybody not belonging to their faith should die. How many crazy guys have we had in the U.S. who killed because they said God told them to?

I’ve made several Muslim friends here, and they all contend that the Osamas of the world misconstrue the words of the Koran. No where in their book does it say to kill people. Islam means peace, not kill. With that being said, I am not against Muslims. The Iraqi people are good people. I don’t look down upon them because I am a Christian and they’re Muslims, and vice versa. This war is about good and evil. Many of the evildoers are Islamic extremists who wouldn’t think twice about cutting the head off of a little girl just because she belonged to a Christian family. We are not fighting Muslims; we are fighting people who give real Muslims a bad name. Muslims don’t hate Americans. The extremists do. Muslims don’t want to kill people. The extremists want power and will do whatever it takes to achieve it, even burning down Churches. The good Iraqi Muslims are our friends, and they just want peace. Soldiers from a predominant Christian country are fighting these extremists every day to preserve the freedoms of all Iraqis, both Christian and Muslim.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

When a soldier dies...

When a soldier dies in combat, he is replaced so the unit will not be compromised. But anybody who’s ever been in our shoes knows that the fallen soldier can never really be replaced. Somebody may file in the ranks, but nobody can replace the smile, the comments or the little quirks of the fallen comrade.

I met Sgt. David Mitts and Staff Sgt. Salamo J. Tuialuuluu on November 14, hardly enough time to learn anything but the basics in any normal situation, but when you’re with a squad and you get shot at you bond. I covered their squad when we were pushing insurgents out of Mosul after the terrorists had taken over four Iraqi Police stations in Mosul. I spent 12 hours with them, patrolling the city, ducking behind cover and swapping camp-fire-type stories like we’d known each other our whole life. They both told me that their wives were pregnant. Mitts said he planned to name his child after Michael Landon, which at the time I found extremely odd. I asked him why and he said, “Because that man represented family values.”

SSG T was a Samoan. He played volleyball like I played baseball as a kid. He had a thick accent and I barely understood him. At first, he was quite reluctant to let me go out with his squad. A lot of army folk see people with cameras as distractions – even if they are in uniform – but after he learned I’d been on more than 100 combat ops and I’m former infantry, he loosened up and said something I couldn’t understand. He knew his job well. I saw him move his squad like a veteran of three wars, and he was only 23.

While I’m not organic to their unit, I really became friends with these guys and we all made a point to hang every day. I’d see ‘em in the chow hall, we’d swap stories, Mitts would tell me about the baby kicking and T would say something I couldn’t understand. I worked out with Mitts once, and he’s a lot stronger than me. T was said to have benched 315 once… that’s more than your average Iraqi car weighs. These guys were special, and I’m not just saying that because they’re no longer with us.

Mitts was a friendly fellow who could turn into a smart ass on a dime. T was a hard shell on the outside, but when you talked about family, you could tell he was nothing but a big Teddy Bear. They were America’s best and they lost their lives for their country. They will not be forgotten. As long as I live, I will remember these two guys and tell my children about sacrifices made by them and countless others who’ve given their life.

I’ve spent a lot of time with soldiers, telling their story. I can’t count how people I’ve know who’ve been killed, but none have hit me harder than these two soldiers. Maybe it’s because they were so damn passionate about the army. Maybe it’s because they were faithful husbands and showed me pictures of their wives, saying they couldn’t wait to call them again. Or maybe it’s because I feel like these men would have done more for their country. Mitts was the All American boy and T was the little Indian or Samoan that could.

On November 14, I took more photos of these guys than I have of any other squad in the past 10 months. I don’t know why; it just kind of happened. I sent them to their hometown newspapers and several web sites. They were great photos, but none – to my surprise – were ever picked up. Now that they have passed, editors want the imagery. It’s sad that they are dead. But it’s even sadder that the news world didn’t want to tell their story until they were gone.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

In memory of two great soldiers: The mission continues

The news struck me harder than a derailed train smacking into a brick wall. Two soldiers died yesterday and four were wounded. I knew them, and they were not only great soldiers, they were great people. The Soldiers killed both were married to beautiful women. One was a soft-spoken professional. The other reminded me of Woody Harrelson in “Cowboy Up.” Tough, rugged and a smart ass. Great men!

When an RPG impacted on the side of a mosque, their squad moved to the site of impact to make sure nobody was hurt and challenge any possible terrorists. Turns out, the RPG into the mosque was only a decoy. The insurgents know we don’t like to see civilians or innocent people bleed to death, so they waited at a nearby mosque to ambush them. The insurgents fired upon the squad as the GIs moved into an open area and killed the two soldiers. They were ambushed or as the surviving soldiers put it “set up.”

Shortly after the firefight, the leadership made the call to go inside the mosque that was hit and where the insurgents were firing from. As you may recall from a previous post, we don’t do this unless we absolutely have to. That’s where I come in. I had about 15 minutes notice when I heard, “get your camera; you’re going into the mosque.” Now, that’s something you don’t hear every day, I thought to myself. They said I was going into a very hostile situation that would result in the most-important pictures I’ve ever taken.

An entire convoy was organized just to get me there. The trip was by far the most intense I’ve been on. The streets were completely empty except for the occasional car. A single vehicle on an empty road can only mean one thing: car bomb. Every single car I saw, my stomach turned in more knots than a Boy Scout training rope. Luckily, none were car bombs. We jumped over curbs and drove as fast as a hummer will go.

On the road, my adrenaline was high and I was still trying to process everything. One minute, I’m snacking on some goodies my mom sent me in a care package. The next, I learn two of my friends were killed and that I will be the first non-Muslim, American photographer to step foot in an Iraqi mosque.

The trip went by so fast it felt as though I blinked and I was already there.

As the black, steel gated entrance to the mosque opened, my heart pounded and my hands shook. I saw the area my two buddies were killed and I could hear gunfire. But I was focused. All I could think about was taking that one photo to illustrate to the world just how crappy these people we’re fighting really are. They fire from mosques, kill women, children and are holding this country back from its potential. Graffiti, weapons or anything unordinary were all to be photographed. How was I supposed to know what was unordinary in a mosque? I didn’t, so I took pictures of everything.

As my feet touched the mosque’s concrete floor, I saw Iraqi and American soldiers working side-by-side for a sole purpose: to find the contraband in the mosque. I moved into the main room that appeared to be the worship area. It was open, no furniture other than a few chests in the corners. Beautiful Persian rugs covered floor. There was a microphone and a mini stool at a small, little room that looked like a closet in the middle, back wall. No doubt, somebody had spread anti-American comments to the community from that very microphone. A clock with six-different time zones hung on the wall. I took pictures of everything. Then, one of the Iraqis opened a drawer from one of the corner cabinets, pulled out a piece of paper and started screaming in English “bad, bad, bad.” It was propaganda. As my finger touched the shutter, I heard a gun shot that sounded awfully close. “We’re going to the next mosque,” somebody yelled.

I sprinted to the Humvee. The next mosque was only seconds away. I was surprised how similar it was to the previous mosque. I really thought we just circled the block and went back to the same place, but we didn’t. Even though I can’t read Arabic, I could tell the graffiti on the walls was different. I photographed the graffiti. Turns out, they weren’t saying good things about us. Inside this mosque, we found grenades, weapons, RPGs and more propaganda.

As we were leaving to return to the camp, somebody told me that they will not be able to use the mosque again for worship until it is cleansed, which is apparently a long process. Unless storing weapons and death-threat handbills is worshiping, I don’t think Alah or God would mind that these mosques won’t be used for awhile.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Four sentences

Some major crap happened today in Mosul, which I was a part of. Can’t really write about it now. I’ll write in detail tomorrow. I just don't feel like doing anything right now.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Mosque shootout

There he lay amidst rubble, debris and expended ammunition rounds. A dead body. This is a sight I’ve become all too accustomed to: a lifeless human lying on concrete or sand with thick puddles of bright-red blood seeping from underneath the body. This fella tried to kill Americans. He and a couple of his buddies sat atop a mosque and fired at Soldiers. They had RPGs, AKs and crew-served weapons – certainly, enough weaponry to cause casualties. But they had no luck. We kicked their asses!

No matter what your so-called cause is, you don’t mess with the best and expect to walk away alive. The American Soldier is the smartest, best trained and best equipped in the world. My message to the dirt bags who want to kill me and my fellow brethren: Bring it on, just make sure you have life insurance.

Today, I was called upon to document the aftermath of this firefight and the reaction of the Iraqi security forces. Because we’re culturally sensitive, Americans do not go into mosques. So, insurgents often use religious buildings as cover as they attack us. We can shoot at them if they’re inside shooting us, but we can’t go in. Luckily, we have good, dependable Iraqi National Guard soldiers in Mosul who go inside the mosques and clean up what’s inside. When they went inside today, the ING soldiers found enough ammo to supply a squad.

To get a good panoramic shot of the mosque and the damage, I climbed up a six-story building on a ladder that felt like it was made of plastic straws. The only action I saw on this trip was when my camera met the jiggling paper-thin wood of the ladder. My lens cap fell to the ground in dramatic fashion, turning in the air before it touched the ground. I would later find my cap and place it back on its lens.

After documenting the body, the bullet holes and the shattered glass, we left the mosque and headed back to the camp, where my photos were used for briefings. Another mission completed!

You might see clips of it on CNN today as a CNN reporter was with us. I’m sure I managed to get in their shot a few times. I’m the guy in uniform with the big Nikon.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Managing female soldiers in a combat zone

You know you’re in the new army when your soldiers ask, “Sergeant, why don’t you join our diet plan.” Not knowing what the hell my four female soldiers were talking about, I said sure, what is it? “We all decided to lose a dress size over the next month. What dress size do you wear, sergeant.” Uhhhh, a five. “Yeah right!”

I laughed of course, but that conversation is a true depiction of the differences of managing infantry soldiers and female soldiers, both of whom provide a much-needed element to today’s army. They also know that they are girls, and know how to get what they want just like every girlfriend I’ve ever had.

“Sergeant, can I have the rest of the day off. I’m not feeling well,” said a soldier who was batting her eye lashes and staring at me with those big, puppy dog eyes. But this is the army, and I look at them as soldiers – not girls, who are admired and looked at by every man – both American and Iraqi – on camp. So, my answers to their questions are typically no unless it’s reasonable. Not feeling well? Go to sick call. Want a day off? Get your work done.

In my spare time, I look at sports sites and read mystery novels. They shop for bras on Victoria secret and watch Sex and the City. For PT, I want to run or lift weights. They want to do Tai Bo. I play PlayStation. They give each other facials.

They believe that they have to maintain their girlyness in this stressful, very manly environment. More power to them. I respect the decision they’ve made to be soldiers and have seen them endure more combat and know that they’ve seen more “shit” than most infantry soldiers. I’d put a couple of them up against any soldier in the U.S. Army – they’re that good. But as they say, girls will be girls – even if they are soldiers. They wear nice-smelling creams and listen to Britney Spears, and if they could, I’m sure they’d grow their hair out to their backs.
And even though I have observed and managed these bright young women for 12 very long months, I still don’t have a clue about women. Just when I think I have one of my soldiers figured out, they throw me for a loop and ask me a question like, “Sergeant, I met this boy and he’s in the infantry. And he’s really cute. I like him. But I don’t think he likes me. If a girl liked you, but you didn’t know it, would you want to be approached by the girl?”

Hey, I’m their NCO, which means I’m also their relationship counselor at times. Their nickname for me? Dad. This means when they bring a boy into the family, I make sure he knows that I'm their boss.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

RPGs, mortars, rockets, oh my

We had eight mortars and a few rockets land on the camp today. Most of them were duds, and fortunately, nobody got hurt. I’ve lost count of how many rockets I’ve heard whistling over my head and impacting just a few meters away. I’ve gotten to the point where I can identify the type of round it is just by hearing it zing by and the impact.

An RPG sounds like the intro of a really bad techno song. Once an RPG landed about 10 feet away from me, bounced off the concrete and flew over my head (it was a dud). I could have sworn noise was from L.L. Cool Jay’s latest album.

A rocket sounds almost like a broken ambulance siren. When they fire rockets, they typically burst in the air. I was on the palace balcony once and heard the distinct sound of the rocket. It blew up about 800 meters away, but I could still feel the atmospheric pressure change caused by the blast. If I had hair, it totally would have given me a bad hair day.

From a distance, you can hear the whistle of a mortar but if you’re in the kill zone, supposedly, you can’t hear it. Luckily, I’ve heard every mortar I’ve been near.

Typically, when you hear the whistle or techno music or a broken siren, you have about two or three seconds to find cover. And it all happens so fast that most of the time you just stand around and look for a bunker. I would compare this to all those infamous cartoons I watched as a kid. Somebody drops a piano from a 10 story building and the guy at the other end just looks up screaming. Good thing they’re firing mortars and not throwing pianos; otherwise, I might not be writing on this blog.

Once I was on a patrol when the enemy was firing 60 mm mortars at us. For the love of God, we were in the middle of the city, around kids and schools and mosques. And these guys had the audacity to fire at us. That’s really nothing new though. They’d kill 20 kids just to hit one American. Believe me, it’s happened.

It’s a good thing that these bad guys are bad shots. I remember a time when this fella was about 50 yards from a squad I was with, and he was just standing up in the middle of the road shooting at us. He didn’t aim and he wasn’t behind cover. That’s like closing your eyes and trying to hit a bulls eye, especially if you’re firing the world’s most inaccurate weapon – the AK 47. I didn’t know whether to laugh at the guy or shoot him. Somebody else shot him. I’m still pissed about that.