In Iraq for 365

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

Friday, January 28, 2005

Taking the Dog Tags off

This whole reintegration thing is tough. I know it will take months, perhaps years to become whole again or to just act like a normal civilian, but while I love every minute of being on American soil, I can’t help but realize just how strange things are.

In my mind, I’m still in Iraq, looking for the cowards behind the black masks… I feel like I’m in a dream where I tell myself everything is fine and nobody here wants to kill me, but I can’t stop myself as if I am simply programmed to be suspicious and alert. My eyes automatically look at everybody as if they’re touting an AK-47. I scan for cover at every turn and am nervous when I see objects on the roadsides.

Today, I’m walking through the mall, shopping for normal clothes and people either had bags or cell phones. I glanced in a 12-year-old’s bag, inspecting for explosives. The kid didn’t see me, but I was ashamed of the act. I saw the mall Rent-A-Cops wearing those “wannabe” Drill Sergeant hats. These guys, who wear badges and a piece, were just sitting around and talking to people. Somebody could easily plant a bomb right under their noses… they’re so damn unprepared and undisciplined, I thought to myself. Plus, they were fatter than the Pillsbury Doboy after a hot dog eating contest. I wanted to tell them that they were a disgrace, but I can’t… I’m not an NCO in jeans and they’re not my troops. They’re Mall Cops and sadly, they out rank me in the civilian world.

It’s also weird to see people relaxed. And I can’t get over the way folks seem to care more about their personal lives and social calendars than the soldiers standing in a guard tower. People are so apathetic. But I guess, there’s not really anything you can do other than placing a yellow bumper sticker on your car or forwarding on an email from a soldier. I guess that’s where I come in. As much as I hate being asked stupid questions, I feel obligated to continue telling the soldiers story. For those of you in the Milwaukee area, I have an interview with 620 a.m. Friday at 5 p.m. And I plan to tour schools, telling kids what it means to be an American. But I’ve already had some schools tell me that Iraq is “too controversial.” The stories of brave Americans and Iraqis working side by side to dispel evil must be told. The smiles of kids must be shared. The fact there is hope in such a downtrodden country is because of the American soldier and I must tell this story to as many people as possible.

Of course when I tell these stories, I need to leave the military dark humor at home. I’m watching “Assault on Precinct 13” and these two guys start stabbing this “bad” cop and I just burst out laughing while everybody else in the theater is covering their eyes. The reason why it was funny is the cop was wearing Kevlar body armor, which protects his torso and chest from sharp objects. In real life, there’s no way the blade would have penetrated that body armor. Hey, it was funny.

But I am showing signs of being normal again. My hair is growing out. I’m already hooked on a show called “Smallville.” I have dates lined up. And for the first time in a year, I took my Dog Tags off. Those things have been dangling by my heart for so long that I feel naked right now without them.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Questions from Mr. Stutter Pants

It amazes me what complete strangers ask. I was still in uniform traveling to Illinois when I stopped at a gas station. This trucker, who claimed he was once a Navy Seal, grabbed me just before I could find the chocolate milk section. The poor man stuttered and was incredibly annoying, which is why I’ll call him Mr. Stutter Pants…

“Diiiiddd, ah… did you fire your weapon?” asked Mr. Stutter Pants. Yes. “How do you feel about that?” I wanted to say, well how the fuck do you think I feel? It makes me feel like a damn cub scout. But my mom taught me not to cuss to strangers. OK, I guess. “D. d. d. do you feel messed up when you uhh…uhhh. Got back?” Geez is this guy a counselor? I just want to buy my chocolate milk and I feel awkward talking to you about this. “What did you doooo thhhhheere?” Army journalist. “Oh, so you really didn’t see any action then?” Nope, sure didn’t pal. In fact, me and the insurgents had pizza parties once a week where we played hide and go seek. It was such a great time.

Just when I didn’t think I could handle much more of this conversation, a lady yelled into the microphone demanding some truck be moved. Luckily, it was Mr. Stutter Pants’ truck. “Hey, I’ve got to move that truck. Stay here, I’ll be right back.” I got my quart of chocolate milk and left the store.

So far, I’ve had about 1,000 strangers want to talk to me about Iraq. Most people just want to say thank you, which is awesome. Nothing makes me smile more than a sweet old lady marching across the room with a cane in hand just to tell me thanks. Some people have offered to buy me lunch, beers or give up their first-born daughter for my “enjoyment.” I’m still adjusting, so I typically decline. To be honest, conversation – even with friends – actually frightens me. I don’t know what to say half the time and I still cuss a lot. But it makes me feel special when somebody says thank you; it really does.

However, it’s the folks like Mr. Stutter Pants who have driven me to grow stubble on my chin and not tell people I was in Iraq, which is really hurting my budget and means I can no longer splash Brut on my freshly shaven cheeks. Thanks a lot, Mr. Stutter Pants. My guess is that the people asking the intrusive questions are Soldier of Fortune readers who care more about the blood and guts of war rather than the men and women in uniform. They want details of combat; they want to see bloody pictures; they want to hear about the experiences I’d rather forget.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind answering… so, what’s it really like there or do you think the elections will happen or are we doing the right thing, but being asked “did you lose any close friends” is just too much for me right now. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to have these types of conversations. But not now. I’m still too close to the war.

Monday, January 24, 2005

My adventures in America have been a blur, if you know what I mean. First, I must say that ID Card Lady was taken care of. Not by me, but my colonel, who tore her a new arse. I did write a scathing review on the Q&A.

Sammy, the guy who always laughs, and I parted Wisconsin to meet with our Illinois friends a couple days ago. On the way here, I realized why it’s never a good idea to drive through Chicago. Drivers nearly rear-ended me and clipped me and I think they all flipped me off. Back in Iraq, we shot a car for getting too close to a convoy. Here, my only defense mechanism is a rude glare or the finger.

Snow was on the ground, the roads were slick and MY WINSHIELD WIPER FLUID doesn’t work, so I had minimal visibility. We eventually arrived to Springfield, Ill., which I am convinced is the hidden setting of The Simpsons because there is a Shellbyville Lake not too far away. Anyway, we met up with the other members of NCO Alley… We’d been a part for just a day and we all missed each other. The guys put their wives on hold and requested just one more night with the people they’d spent a year in combat with.

We hit the bars, Hooters and a few other places. We tried not to tell people we’d been in Iraq for a year, because of the damned questions we get asked… “did you fire your weapon? Did you kill anybody? Were you by bombs” For as much as I loved serving my country, I just wish people would just leave us alone. It’s one thing to write about it or share intimate details with a close friend or family member. It’s another thing to be questioned by total strangers.

Tonight, four members of NCO Alley will hit the Springfield bars one more time and go our own ways. We’ve already established a date at which we’d get together every year. The date we chose was September 27, the day Samir (our interpreter) was killed. Although his name never made a single headline here or in Iraq, he’ll always hold a special place in our hearts. It seems just like yesterday I was meeting Samir, but in reality, it was a year ago. And now I am a civilian again… it’s weird.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The reunion

I was the only male in a packed van heading to Sparta, Wis., for the family reunion of the soldiers of the 139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. This would be the first time many of us had seen our parents, children, girlfriends and spouses in a year. We were all excited, but for the girls, it meant leaving the uniform behind and wearing makeup and perfume and ear rings. The van smelled like one of those ads in Cosmo. A few soldiers left Fort McCoy early with their families. We were the last to take the 15 minute drive.

The roads were white with snow and the glare from headlights illuminated the trees on the roadsides. The scenery was truly beautiful. That is until the traffic stopped. We saw ambulance lights from a distance. There had apparently been a horrible traffic accident a few miles up ahead. My heart fell to the pit of my stomach. The only thing I could think about: one of our soldiers, more accustomed to jumping curbs and avoiding bombs than the slick roads, was in the accident. We had come too far to lose a life on an American road. The van, which had been filled with typical female “boy” chatter, went silent. We all thought the same thing. And then the flashing lights became closer and closer.

This was the only time I’ve ever gawked at an accident. The fireman pulled out the Jaws of Life and moved toward the car. I believe it was a cavalier and it apparently went off the road, collapsing the passenger side. We all looked and saw an unfamiliar face and shattered glass. Finally, we all exhaled, but at that moment, I realized for as long as I live that I will never look at an accident or fire or drowning as just another death. Each human life is precious, even if I don’t know the person. Every person is somebody’s brother, son or daughter, and in a strange way, I feel forever obligated to pay my respects and or to preserve a hurting soul or life.

We passed the accident and eventually parked in the VFW lot. I saw my Nissan Altima – with leather seats and a sunroof – amidst the many non-military vehicles, which meant my folks were there too. As we opened the double glass doors, I saw my mother. Her back was turned and she wore her favorite suit. Dad wore a tie (he never wears ties).

My mom cried when I put my arms around her. My dad was speechless. I forgot the tissues, and a few tears filled my eyes. The feeling was incredible. Never before have I felt the way I did last night. Since I’ve been back in the states, I really haven’t had time to enjoy my surroundings and feel like I’m home. Last night was different. It hit me. I’m home for good.

All the families were sitting at tables. Some drank, others just stared into their loved one’s eyes, holding their arms, thanking God they were there, together. My commander, who has been away from his family for nearly two years on separate deployments, spoke about the hardships we faced, about how we overcame the difficulties together and how we are a very special group of people. He won my mom’s heart. “That colonel is something else. I really like him.” After a short, but touching, speech, we lined up at the salad bar. It was one of the weird buffets where you didn’t know which way to go. It took five minutes for everybody to circle the salads in a counterclockwise motion, but nobody really cared about the food. The moment was about seeing the ones you loved, the ones you said goodbye to a year ago not knowing if you’d ever see them again.

After the dinner, my commander spoke again and then our first sergeant, a former U.S. Army Ranger who looks like he eats nails for breakfast and drinks concrete shakes for lunch. He got choked up. “Never in my career have I been more proud of a group of soldiers.” I couldn’t believe my ears; Top was getting emotional. Then again, it didn’t surprise me… we’d all changed the past year. “Never before did I think I’d be giving female soldiers loaded weapons and placing them in guard towers. Never before did I think I’d put the faith in very young, untested, NCOs and see them flourish. What your children accomplished is truly amazing.”

Shortly afterward, my parents and I left the VFW and bowled a few rounds. Dad knocked down more pins than me in the first game and mom smoked us both in the second. She’s the type of bowler who lobs the ball like she’s pitching softball and you wonder how she ever hits a pin, but she kicked my butt… always does. After the final game and near my curfew, I embraced the two people who gave me life and said a short good bye. We went our separate ways, but this time, I knew I’d see them again.

I drove my Altima for the first time. As I pulled up to my barracks, I daydreamed of the future… a new apartment on the lake, plasma T.V., running on my favorite trail. And then, the car would no longer move forward. I was stuck. The six or seven inches of snow swallowed my front tires and I was going nowhere. Back in the day, I’d have cursed Wisconsin weather. But not this time.

I was just happy it was snow and not a bomb.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Good news and bad news

Well, I didn’t end up going to the Presidential Inauguration. I’m very disappointed, but hey at least we were prematurely invited. We ended up being taken off the list as the date approached and we had not even completed our demobilization process.

Tonight, I will be reunited with my parents. Our unit is having a dinner with the soldiers and families. I’m stoked and am bringing Kleenexes for mom. I also put on a lot of Brut, which my buddies tell me smells like poop. I’ve been wearing it since I was 12. Is there something I don’t know about the stuff in the green bottle? Anyway, tomorrow, I will say goodbye to the people I’ve spent 436 days with in training and in combat. Tomorrow, I will be a civilian again. Of course, I have 20 briefings between now and then, but at least at the end of the day, I will be wearing jeans and drinking a beer.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

ID Card Lady

I am not a person who likes conflict. I try to be diplomatic and avoid confrontations. Today, I stood face to face with ID Card Lady, a woman who’s renowned for crushing military egos. She picked the wrong person this morning to take out her sexual frustrations. She’s one of those ladies who is married to a high-ranking enlisted man and thinks her marriage equals uniform rank. Before I go into detail about our battle of wit, let me explain the process at which took me to ID Card Lady…

I think I’d rather get shot at than go through what I did today. We endured redeployment briefings that were as exciting as watching a NASCAR race (which is not a sport!). The army realizes we had several traumatic experiences so they augment this with briefings about our mental health, physical condition, how to be reunited with your family and our veteran benefits. We also had to fill out scores of paperwork and for some reason the army has figured out 20 different ways to write a date. There’s ddmmyear, mmddyear, yearfullmonthdd, etc. Screw it up and you have to redo the paperwork. Anyway, while everything was extremely interesting and important, I am not much of a classroom guy (which is why I graduated college with a 2.6). It took everything I had not to fall asleep. Upon the completion of several long, boring, briefings, we were given a rather long list of stations we had to clear. Finance. TRICARE. Medical. Dental. Chaplain. Legal. G6. Retention. ACAP. DD214. And ID Card…

Her hair was natty and she had a smoker’s voice. “Can I help you?” said ID Card Lady. Yes, ma’am, I need to get my new ID Card so I can receive all my new veteran’s benefits, such as VA Home Loan and VA grants for this business I plan to start. “Well, did you go to finance,” she asked after a series of coughs and a few sips of coffee. Why yes I did. “It’s not signed on your sheet.” Cough, cough, sip, sip. Well, I went there, ma’am. “I will say this again, it’s not signed on your sheet.” No problem, ma’am, I’ll go back to finance and get a sig. I wanted to say, hey, pull that corn cob out of your ass, splash some cold water on your face and give me my new ID Card so I can enjoy all my veteran’s benefits and you can go back to polluting your lungs with Camels.

So, I went to finance and got a signature and returned to ID Card Lady’s cluttered desk that was covered with pictures of her ugly dog. “Did you get your end of leave form?” Why yes I did. Here it is. She took it from my hand and gave me a dirty look with her dark brown, cold eyes. Then, she started typing the information in her computer, so I could get all my veteran’s benefits.

My final day of active duty will be February 15, but my commander is trying to push it to the right a couple days. I won’t be doing anything; I’ll just be on leave status during this period. I didn’t think it really mattered, but I told her anyway.

Ma’am, I don’t think it matters, but there’s a chance that the end of leave date could change. “What? That totally changes everything. That means your active duty benefits will shift two days.” You know, I really don’t care. Just put in the info, take my picture, sign the form and we’ll call it a day. “Well, I do care and I’m not putting this in the computer if it’s not right.” I don’t know if the date is going to change, but what’s two days. I mean, I just want to go home. And right now, I can’t do that if you don’t sign this form. “Well, let me tell you something, I am not going to sign your form if you don’t know if the date is right.” Then, her colleague walks in. The colleague wore tight spandex pants and a sweater that revealed more than needed to be seen. The ID Card Lady explained the situation to the Colleague, who agreed with ID Card Lady who emphasized I didn’t care. “We can’t do anything until we know the date is right. And you should care,” said the Colleague whose breath smelled like a whisky cabinet. She totally took that comment out of context. All I want to do is go home. “No, I didn’t take your comment out of context. You’ve been giving me attitude since you walked in this office.”

In the past year, I don’t think I’ve been more ticked off than at that particular moment. I wanted to tell her that her dog was ugly and she looked like a shriveled up piece of beef jerky. But I remained cool and sternly said… Listen here, you haven’t seen attitude and I don’t appreciate the way you’re treating soldiers who’ve been shot at, mortared, received life-scarring wounds and seen more crap in person than you have on T.V. “Don’t tell me how to treat soldiers. I’m married to a Marine. And I don’t appreciate your attitude.” At this point, I realized that I’m going up hill in a pair of broken slippers with this lady. Trust me, lady, you have not seen an attitude yet. Then, I stormed out of her stinky office.

At the end of all these briefings, I get to fill out a survey about how efficient the process was and how we were treated by the workers. Now, I couldn't live with myself for getting somebody fired, so I’ll not mention this incident. However, Friday, I will be re-united with ID Card Lady. And while today’s battle may have ended in a standstill, she will feel my wrath if she messes with me again and doesn’t give me a new ID Card so I can enjoy my veteran’s benefits. By God, I’ve been in Iraq for a year; I think I can handle ID Card Lady.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The journey to America

We stayed in Kuwait for a day and a half and then flew to Shannon, Ireland, for an hour layover. The Irish were surprisingly supportive. Quite a few greeted me as I shaved in their airport lavatory. “Lad, are you going home?” Yes. “I see there, laddie. I just want to tell you I think you all are doing a fine job. I don’t care what those bloody liberal media say.” Well, thank you sir. I continued shaving… a seven-hour flight produces some nasty whiskers.

And then we flew to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. My first words spoken in America were “holy shit it is cold!” Although I anticipated cold weather, I forgot what 20 degrees felt like. We then loaded up on a bus heading to Fort Dix where we received a briefing.

“Listen and listen carefully. What do you hear?” said the first sergeant leading a series of redeployment briefings inside an old chapel at Dix. Nothing. “Exactly. There are no mortars. No snipers. No IEDs. Just America, and we will get you home.” This group’s sole job is to take redeploying soldiers in transit and make sure they make it to the civilian airports and their flights on time. After 10 different people spoke about stuff I can’t remember because I was so sleepy, we then slept at this old, run-down church for about four hours and then re-packed all our gear in a different bus and headed toward the Philadelphia airport. We shared the bus with an ate-up unit. They failed to pack their bags in the typical military fashion – tight with no loose strings – and we had to help them repack their crap. One army, one team.

We stored our weapons in shotgun cases and placed them with our check-in baggage. We had to lock and clear the M-16s in front of a guard. And man did we get some strange looks. One family pointed at me and quietly said, “look, he’s got a gun.” I wanted to correct them… no this is not my gun; this is my weapon… but they wouldn’t understand. After checking in about 1,200 pounds of gear, we were on our way to gate E-6, which I found ironic because I’m an E-6. Anyway, the line was long and we were running late.

There’s only one major airline that still searches soldiers on orders and that’s Northwest. Guess what airline we flew? That’s right, Northwest and every one of us had to take off our boots, our dog tags, our wallets, our belts and a few had to be individually searched with the same wand we used on suspected terrorists. This didn’t set well with one of my captains… “You know my soldiers and I just want to get home. We’ve been in Iraq for a year.” “Are you gettin’ an attitude with me?” said the very mean lady who probably was dumped by a soldier and still holds a grudge. “Listen here, we’ve been in Iraq FOR A YEAR.” “I think you are threatening me,” said the mean lady. Personally, I didn’t care. Hell, make me take all my clothes off and do toe touches… I’m going home, baby.

We were late, but the airline was nice enough to delay the flight just for us. When I boarded the plane, I detected some scowls and nasty whispers from the First Class folks. No doubt, we were the reason they would be an hour late for their business meeting and tennis lessons. Then, like crossing into another world, my feet touched coach, where the construction workers, middle managers and school teachers sat. I didn’t pass a single person without hearing “Thank you.”
The flight lasted 2.5 hours and I spent most of it talking about Iraq to the guy sitting next to me. I was amazed at how uninformed he was, but it wasn’t his fault; he just read the death and destruction headlines. I really felt like I was regurgitating past stories I’d written, but he hung on to every word. We then landed in Minneapolis, our last stop until La Crosse, Wis., the closest airport to our demobilization site – Fort McCoy.

Our original La Crosse flight was canceled. No big deal; it gave me a chance to eat and to stare at the businesswomen talking on cell phones. My first meal in the States was a ham and egg cheese McMuffin, hash browns, chocolate-chip cookie and two cups of coffee. I couldn’t get a bite in without somebody coming by and saying “thank you so much. Welcome home.” Got to love those Midwesterners; they love the military. Somebody bought me a Gatorade, too, which I planned to drink on the final leg of this long, exhausting journey.

After scarfing down the best damn meal I’ve had in a year, I enjoyed the scenery for the rest of the 2-hour layover. I don’t think there’s a place that truly defines America better than an airport. I saw all types of people from the blue collar guys in flannel shirts and paint-stained pants; to the college girls with tight shirts, low-cut pants and tattoo on the small of their back; to the 20 something business wannabes, talking stocks on their cell phones; to the old, distinguished professionals whose shoes make a unique click-clack sound when they walk. It was strange seeing Americans, but in a good way. I don’t think I saw one Arabic or Kurdish guy the whole day, which was also strange.

The plane ride to La Crosse was so short that the flight attendants never came by to give us pretzels or pick up our trash, which meant I put the empty Gatorade bottle in my pocket because it’s just rude to leave trash behind on a plane. When we landed, the flight attendants announced that Northwestern appreciated our service. As we walked down the terminal, a band played the “Star Spangled Banner” and a row of generals and sergeant majors and a bunch of suit people were there to greet us. Families were there. The media was there too. And I had this dang, big Gatorade bottle in my pants. As I was shaking hands, the only thing I could think of was I’ve got to throw this thing away. It makes my butt look big and I’ll be on the news tonight.

I had a nice surprise waiting for me in the crowd. A couple friends drove up from Milwaukee and gave me the biggest hugs I’ve received in a year. They bought my lunch at Panera Bread and dropped me off at Fort McCoy, where I’ll spend the next couple days receiving briefings about how to reenter society and to make sure I don’t have any strange diseases.

I used to hate this place. The barracks were made in WWII and the heat never works. It’s always cold here. And the MPs like giving tickets. But now, as I look at this snow-covered post called Fort McCoy, I realize it’s more like my home than a duty station. After all, home is where the heart is and my heart will always be in America, all 50 states.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

In Kuwait, waiting on bird number two

I know better. I don’t know why I did it. I mean, I’ve been on a dozen or so C-130 flights, some of which lasted eight hours. And every time, I made sure I was the last to get on so I’d have the comfortable roomy seat in the back, conveniently closer to the potty bucket. But for some reason, I was the first to place my desert boots on the bird that took me from Iraq to Kuwait. See, surviving a packed C-130 flight requires patience, durable ear drums and a very strong bladder. I have all except for the latter, which is why I always relieve myself 30, 15 and 10 minutes before every flight and get the nearest seat to the potty.

If you’re in the front and you gotta go, you must walk down a long aisle of knees and shoulders, and the soldiers are normally sleeping. Nobody likes to be awakened by the guy who didn’t take care of business beforehand, so I just sat there waiting and waiting and waiting. I actually contemplated going and got up to march to the pot, and then I saw everybody’s gear crammed in between the knees and elbows. Unless I scaled the cargo-net walls, I’d be better off taking a terrorist head on than walking down the row of sleep-deprived soldiers.

Your mind plays some funny tricks on you when the bladder is exceeding capacity. Did you forget your weapon? No it’s right here. Did you do a head count of all your soldiers; I think one or two are missing. Of course I did, didn’t I? Simply put, I didn’t enjoy the flight leaving Iraq because I thought I was going to implode. And when we finally landed, I was the happiest man alive. “Sergeant, I know we’re going home, but you’re a little too excited.” You have no idea, sir. I went to the port-a-potty and didn’t leave for two minutes. While there, I enjoyed good old fashioned army graffiti. Of course, it was all too vulgar to share, but know there are some pretty good artists roaming about who appreciate the female body.

Other than enjoying graffiti, I’ve been taking it easy. But even here, there are things to stress about. “Get your hands out of your pockets, sergeant.” “Who said you could wear a black fleece with DCUs?” It’s been so long since I’ve been a part of the normal army environment where people gripe about uniform standards rather than worrying about getting killed that I almost wanted to tell the senior ranking person… Yeah, taking my hands out of my pockets is really going to save my life. I’ve been in Iraq for a year while you’ve been worrying about wrinkles in your uniform. So, you can kiss my arse. But it is the army standard and as an NCO, I am supposed to be the standard, so I adapted to the environment and just drove on.

But the soldiers in Kuwait are in a completely different environment than Iraq. They don’t have to worry about mortars, roadside bombs or car bombs. They have movie theaters, Burger King, Subway, Baskin Robbins, Starbucks and a PX that puts Wal-Mart to shame. They don’t have to wear body armor, ammo or a weapon every where they go. They have swimming pools, bowling alleys and drive SUVs rather than uparmored hummers. This place is more like a resort in Tennessee, and the soldiers stationed here receive the same combat and hazardous duty pay as soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m sure they’re doing a great job and I certainly appreciate their service, but come on, do they deserve combat pay? That’s reserved for people who are… what should I say … in a combat zone, not for soldiers who wear civilian clothes on their off time. Many of the soldiers in Kuwait have already served in Iraq or Afghanistan and most of them agree that they don’t deserve the extra pay, but they’re not complaining. I probably wouldn’t either. I guess, you could say it’s a little frustrating when your life has been in jeopardy every day for the past year and soldiers living the good life receive the same exact pay as you. They also receive a combat patch, which is a highly coveted honor bestowed upon soldiers for serving in a combat zone. To me, that’s just a kick in the crotch when you’re on a C-130 and gotta go pee.

With that being said, they are still separated from their families and the potential threat is always there. The insurgency could move into Kuwait or Qatar, and start causing trouble, and U.S. personnel are always a target anywhere in the Middle East. So, now that I think about it, maybe it’s OK that they receive extra compensation. The soldiers in real combat zones should just get more.

Either way, any deployed soldier looks forward to the day he or she can return to American soil. The next jet plane I hop on will take me there. This time, I’ll make sure I get a seat closer to the potty.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Collection of memories (final Iraq post)

I started this blog because it's so hard to write emails to everybody, and I just wanted the people I love to know that I was OK and I can't interject opinions on my "Army" stories. Never in a million years did I expect to receive emails from people of Egypt, Australia and even, Iraq. I was humbled by the many kind words written to me and or posted on the comments section. The last couple weeks, people have asked, some even begged, that I continue to post when I return to Milwaukee. But honestly, I don't know what I'll write about. Maybe, I could go to the bars and coffee joints and pick somebody out to make fun of... nah, that's not really me. Or perhaps, I'll grow a beard and long hair and let you know what kind of shampoo I use... nah, too boring. Whatever I decide, I assure you, I'll keep writing. It's too fun to give up. With that being said, this will be my final post for a couple days because I'm leaving on a Jet Plane and I don't know when I can post again. For my final Iraq post, here's a collection of memories...

When I arrived in Iraq in February, everything seemed so foreign to me... the 1960s cars, the concrete square buildings, Arabic people wearing turbans with Michael Jordan shirts and Nike shoes, the mosques shouting prayers throughout the city five times a day, buildings made of marble yet had no toilets and of course, the stark reality that I carry ammunition everywhere I go and people want to kill me. This was no vacation, that's for sure. I'd been in Iraq two days when I received orders for my first combat mission. I was scared. "Where are your earplugs, sergeant?" Uh, I forgot them. "Any time, you get on a Stryker, you wear ear plugs. Here take these. This your first time?" Yup. "You'll be fine."

I went on a very basic patrol through the city. My job was to shoot the cover of Soldier's Magazine. In fact, the sole purpose of this patrol was for me to take pictures for Soldier's. On my first adventure in the city, I had so many emotions running through me. I was nervous. I felt inadequate as a photographer. I wanted to see combat. I didn't want want to see combat. I wondered what pick-up line I'd use on this girl I've been chasing for three years. So, I've been in the shit, wanna go out? It actually snowed that day for the first time in 12 years, which is great if you're an Iraqi throwing snowballs but horrible when you're a photographer trying to capture Iraq through your lens. However, I did make some really good friends with that particular platoon. The magazine passed on the imagery, which I was a little upset about. Here I am risking my life to take a damn picture for your damn magazine and you don't even use it. Nonetheless, the relationships I formed that day solidified my position for the remainder of the deployment: I would be the go to photographer / writer for combat operations.

This unofficial title has afforded me the great chance to meet and know the soldiers of the first two Stryker Brigades, who were mostly infantry. These are the guys who seek and destroy the enemy with more speed and combat power than any Army entity ever. Simply put, these are the best soldiers in the Army.

One patrol I was on, an Iraqi charged an American and tried to take his gun. The soldier pulled out a knife and slit his attacker's throat. He didn't want to kill the person, but he had to. "It was either him or me or my buddy." We don't like killing people, but that's why we're here, I guess, to kill them so they don't kill us.

This war started out as a means to find weapons of mass destruction. Then, it was let's give the Iraqi people freedom. Now, politicians say let's fight the terrorists there and not on American soil. To be honest, soldiers don't care about the cause. We're not fighting for any of the above; we are fighting for the guy on our left and right. You form a bond so tight with fellow soldiers that you never want to let them down. I've seen it displayed every day for a year.

Once, I was in Tal Afar for a large-scale, three day operation. We had birds, Strykers and artillery, but the fighting always comes down to the individual soldier and his weapon. In Avgoni, nearby Tal Afar, we were moving toward the objective through very dense terrain. Tall trees, thick brush and long vines were every where. It was so green because of human crap, which flowed to the bottom of the hills and fertilized what appeared to look more like a Vietnam jungle than an Iraqi village. But, the enemy knew the terrain and we didn't. They posted white T-shirts on the smaller trees, which looked like a person from a distance, setting a trap that we walked right into. At the other end of these decorated trees were about three or four men with AKs and RPGs. When the squad moved into the open zone, the enemy opened fire, nailing the squad leader in each leg and in a fat roll. As the squad leader fell to the ground, he didn't moan in pain; he fired back, killing an insurgent gunner just as he was about to fire an RPG into the squad. Because of this soldier, the man on his left and right are still alive, including me.

A lot of the operations I've been sent on have turned out to be nothing. They sent to me to the Najaf, Al Kut area when al Sadr's militia was wreaking havoc. This was in August or September, I can't really remember. "This is going to be like World War III. Sadr's militia is hunkered down and just waiting for us." When we got there, they had abandoned ship and left behind their toys. All we did was find weapons cache after weapons cache. I think I only had one RPG fired at me the whole time. For spending a month there, I was a little disappointed.

Then there were the QRF missions at which I had five minutes notice to go document a car bomb or something of the type. I think we photographed 20 car bombs. My first broke me in pretty good. It was just outside of city hall and there were body parts every where. I nearly broke down in tears when I saw this little foot that couldn't have been more than four inches long. The scene never got better; I just got used to it.

Probably the more defining moments of this deployment have been the close calls. The RPGs flying over my head, the bullets pinging off of metal three inches from my head, the mortars spreading shrapnel at the very spot I would have been if I didn't sleep in. I don't really know how many I've had; I quit counting in August. But with each one, I said a prayer and thanked God to still be alive.

But probably the most painful of moments were when we lost people. I'll never forget the smiles on my friends' faces, T & Mitts. They were both strong characters who represented the army values. There are thousands just like them, and each soldier killed had a story. We tried to tell that story to the world. Rather than focusing on how they died, we described how the person lived, the difference they made to the world. Nobody ever saw these memorial stories but the families and the few small town newspapers who were interested. We learned our lesson of spamming a memorial story to the larger outlets like AP. The editors deleted the story and used the photo of a crying soldier hugging the memorial display of an M-16 bayoneted into a box with the soldier's helmet on the buttstock and dog tags on the hand grip. The photo cutline read: A soldier mourns the loss of a fellow comrade. Elsewhere in Iraq, 14 killed in a large explosion outside... you get the point. Just a single sentence. No name. No family. Just a sentence and then elsewhere in Iraq. That's hardly justice for a soldier who gave that reporter the freedom of press.

When the Iraqis die, it's just as hard to swallow as when it's an American soldier. My good friend and interpreter, Samir, was killed on the very day I went home for leave - back in September. He was captured by terrorists when he was on his way to the palace. He managed to escape; had he not, they probably would have beheaded him. As he ran through the market, trying to get away, asking for help, the people said "get away from us; you work for the Americans." His back was sprayed with bullets and he died on the concrete sidewalk. He was there for hours before anybody notified us or moved his body. "Don't touch him, let him rot, he worked for Americans." We had this saying, "we're here for Samir." He was a great guy.

Of course, not all Iraqis hated us. Back in April, I was in this very small village that had a mud-hut mansion. Inside were crystal glasses and Persian rugs. The residents served us tea and did nothing but thank us for rebuilding their schools, hospitals and roads in the Kurdish village. I've seen little kids read essays in English thanking us. Old ladies have made us food thanking us. Interpreters have bought us souvenirs thanking us. I've been thanked by Iraqis at least 1.234 million times. I recall the words of an Iraqi general when he pointed at one of my female soldiers... "You people (his soldiers) should be ashamed of yourselves. This girl is here because of you. She is fighting for your country. You owe her a thanks, your honor."

The other day, we received our awards and a dozen hugs and kisses from our interpreters and Iraqi counterparts. As I stood at attention, I thought about the man I had become over the past year, the friends I made, the cameras I broke and how I would do it all over again. My commander said, "From now on, for the rest of your life, you will be linked to everyone who wears that uniform and has served in combat. This year, you have proven yourselves and now, it's time to go home."

Now that I look back on everything, I can say that this hasn't been the easiest year of my life, but it's certainly been the most memorable. I'm sure I'll always look back and say, "There I was in Iraq and this...." Boy, my kids are in for a treat.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

At the airfield, just waiting

It's official. We transferred our authority over to the 366th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. I'm sure they will do a great job, but it's hard to leave. A part of me will always be in Iraq, writing stories for the Iraqi people and the American soldiers and their families...

His ankle was bandaged and he was being carried to the Stryker vehicle to be evacuated to the hospital. I don't know what happened to him, but from the looks of it, his heel had received a bullet or some shrapnel. I was on the same Stryker convoy, only I wasn't going to the hospital... I was leaving Camp Freedom for the airfield to wait for a plane. As I stepped onto the Stryker, I looked at the crowds of soldiers walking by and I couldn't help but to feel bad. Here I am, leaving and they're staying. I know, I've put a year's worth of blood, sweat and tears into this place, and I didn't leave anything on the battlefield, but I feel like I'm leaving people behind. I'd stay, if my commander would let me. "We came as a team and we're leaving as a team." Two of us, including me, attempted to receive extensions for six months, but our commander denied the requests. He's in charge, so he knows what's best.

Yesterday, my bags were packed and although I've been outside the wire more than anybody in my unit, I didn't do a very good job. I packed the equipment and clothes so tight that I had to pull everything out this morning just to take a shower. I also forgot soap and towels. So, after I jumped out of the shower, I dried off with my dirty brown T-shirt... gross.

Right now, I'm at FOB Diamondback, which is like 50 times better than my normal post. We watched two movies -- Good Will Hunting and High Fidelity -- in the FOB's Movie Theater. The place gives you popcorn, a drink and has a huge cinema-like big screen with surround sound. As I sat back in the chairs and enjoyed the picture show, I was lost in the movies and with my feet propped up on the empty seat in front of me, I comfortable... I didn't feel like I was in Iraq. My buddy said he felt the same way. "The only thing that was missing was my wife. The whole time I had such a yearning to have her next to me, holding my arm and just touching me." Soon, my friend, this will be reality. Soon.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Interview with terrorist

When I interview Iraqis, I always ask them this one question: If you were face to face with a terrorist and he granted you five minutes to convince him that he’s hurting Iraq, what would you say? They either never understand the question or the question just doesn’t translate. They typically answer… “That would be impossible; a terrorist would never talk to me.” Since I’m just waiting for a bird to fly home on, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands, so I’ll answer the question….

First and foremost, you guys have to stop wearing all black man dresses when you fight us. It’s nice to identify you and all, but give me a break: don’t wear black man dresses with masks unless you’re trying out for a villain role in the next Spider Man. This outfit doesn’t do you guys justice. We don’t know whether to should shoot you, laugh or take a picture because nobody will believe us. What you really need to be wearing are Yankees uniforms, just don’t wear the pants so tight.

Next, why in the world are you kidnapping family members? What did they do to you? If you have a problem with somebody wanting a free country or they’re working for us, why don’t you swing by and we’ll have a nice diplomatic talk. We’ll start off by offering you a bowl of Cheerios with no milk and then we’ll have somebody give you a massage. We’re nice people. When we interrogate folks, we don’t put a knife to their throat and bend back their fingernails. We simply talk. Oh, don’t bring up Abu Ghraib… that was a few sick-minded jerks who ruined all the hard work we put into this country. You know where those turds are now? They’re in jail! When somebody does something wrong or violates human rights, we throw them in the slammer. You guys encourage such acts, which is why we’re having this little talk.

Why do you shoot at us from holy sites? In our country, we cleanse souls in temples, churches and mosques. You guys behead people. Seriously, do you think God or Allah approves of this? Well, I’ve got news for you; the Big Guy and I had a little talk and He said you are in big trouble. Think you’re going to heaven if you die fighting us? Nope. The Big Guy said your fingers, toes and private parts will be burning for an eternity, because of the violence you incite and commit. It’s not too late to turn back. I’m mean, think about it: do you really want your private parts burning forever? Personally, I would never subject my “boys” to such torture.

OK, I know you think that there are certain times of the year at which you are invisible. (This is true; during Ramadan, insurgents really thought they were invisible and invincible) But you’re not. And in fact, we can see you quite well in the day and night. Our bullets will pierce through your flesh even when you’re “invisible,” so you’re better off just staying at home, eating Cheetos all day. SIDE NOTE: A Kurdish friend of mine fought in the Iraq-Iran war. During one particular battle, the Iranians were driving through the desert on motorcycles toward a heavily guarded Iraqi camp. The Iraqis lit up the Iranians and captured the living. When asked why they drove motorcycles to the front of the camp, the Iranian soldiers responded, “Because the motorcycles were supposed to make us invisible.”

I know you think you’re being tactically proficient by placing bombs on dead bodies, but isn’t that against Allah? Now I’m no Muslim, but if I’m not mistaken, the Koran says that human remains should be treated with respect whether it’s a friend or foe. That’s just another reason for Allah to be mad at you. Man, forever is a very long time. And since I’m a nice guy from a very nice country, I’m giving you a chance to not burn in hell by giving up and helping the former “Cradle of Civilization” get back on its feet.

I’ve met so many nice Iraqis and wonder what happened to you guys, but if my father taught me anything, it’s to be patient and always forgive and forget. It will be hard, but I’ll try to forgive you for killing dear friends of mine and it will be tough to forget the sound of an RPG flying over my head. But I know in the end, after I leave your country, I will forgive you and simply remember the good times and the good Iraqi people. If I don’t, I just might be like you and fill my soul with hate. And trust me, I don’t want to join you in hell… my boys don’t deserve to burn.

Sunday, January 09, 2005


John is a good man. He comes to the palace every night to iron our uniforms and sew our torn tops. "Business is fine. People come and go every day," says John, an Iraqi who works for us as an interpreter and runs a little business on the side.

He's also a Christian, a rarity in a predominately Muslim country. When I first met John, it was because I lost a pair of socks – my favorite pair – in laundry. I was mad, but this didn't last long after he smiled. He shook my hand and said, "sergeant, I am very sorry about your socks. I do not want to lose your business. Please, don't go to laundry at the bottom of the hill (his competition). I will personally do your laundry next time and will take care of your socks. My name is John."

John worked for a Civil Affairs battalion in Mosul. He quit because the unit he loved left and was replaced. He said he just didn't feel the same with the new soldiers. Plus, he received daily death threats. One of the people he worked for actually extended for six months while the others went home. That soldier was killed by a car bomb and the colonel's death affected John so much that he decided to work for us again, despite the dangers.

"If they can kill a man as good and generous as colonel Phelan, then they don't care about Iraq. I can't worry about my own safety. I returned because I want my country to be a better place."

People who work for us are targeted by the terrorists. As soon as they leave the compound, they are tracked down, threatened or killed. Many times, their death is taped by the enemy. John had a tape of him leaving the compound with a little note… you will die if you go to coalition forces tomorrow. They cannot protect you.

He may only translate words and iron DCUs, but he provides so much more. John gives the Soldiers faith in Iraqis. We've had so many Iraqis betray us and it's hard to trust them. John is different. John makes me want to fight to the death just to give his people freedom. Every day, I can't wait to see his face again. He's always smiling and always asks about my family. "Have you talked to your father? How is your brother?" And he can grow a beard quicker than any American I've ever met. The days he's clean shaven, I make a point to notice. John, you look 12 years old again. "Sergeant, I'm 30." We both laugh. It's a little routine we've developed over the year.

He played soccer and is still in good shape. The girls think he's cute and he's the kind of guy, who can cut up or be serious about his feelings. Today, I dropped off my last uniform to John. He knew it.

"Can I get my picture taken with you, sergeant?" This past year, I've been the picture taker and have very few photos of myself. But this is one photo I'd never pass on. You bet, John. I'm going to miss you.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Taking the new guys to a memorial

The replacements followed me to the helipad; their gear wasn’t stained from sweat and dirt like mine. They carried useless equipment that Army instructors say are necessary, like a canteen when you’re issued a Camelback. For the first time in a year, I walked onto the bird with only my weapon, body armor, Kevlar, ammunition and eye protection. Typically, I carry my big Nikon, two lenses and enough battery power to keep the lights on in a small Oklahoma town. I felt naked without my baby, which is neatly packed in a huge shipping crate bound for the states. On just their second day, the newbies were assigned to cover the one mission I dread – a memorial. My job was to ensure they arrived at the forward operating base and that they understood their parameters… you have to be cognizant of people’s feelings as they mourn for a fallen comrade. Sometimes, they don’t want their picture taken, but most times, they look at it as a way to remember their brother or sister.

I also had to square ‘em away. You need to tie that off with 550 cord or you’ll lose your ammo pouch on a patrol. You should probably hook your weapon into a d-ring that way you can have freedom of movement. Got extra batteries, lenses and cards? “No.” Go get them. “Yes, sergeant.”

I want them to know everything that took me three months to figure out, so they can do my job better than I. They were surprisingly excited about the mission and receptive to my orders. For most of the month, they’ve been traveling, stuck in airports and waiting at military camps. These guys just want to do their jobs and then go home.

Like me, I’m sure they will never forget their first mission in a war zone. Mine was shooting for the cover of a major magazine. Their first was somber and filled with tears. I didn’t know the Soldier who died, but he sounded like my kind of guy… he got in trouble a lot and always made up for his mistakes with a good work ethic. He lost his life when an RPG hit his Stryker.

I don’t know what number he was, but I get tired of seeing the number of American casualties exploited in the news. Soldiers aren’t numbers; they’re people with families and friends. They’re white, Asian, black, Puerto Rican. They’re brave, friendly, caring, selfless. And it’s at these memorials that you see how truly pure our army is… speaking at this boy’s were several soldiers of different races and upbringings. But in the army, it doesn’t matter what color you are or if you came from a rich Catholic family or a poor urbanite family surviving off of welfare. Anyway, you could tell this private’s soldiers cared about him; it’s our job to convey this to the world. As I sat in the fold out chair, I felt awkward… I wasn’t the one with the camera. Rather, I was watching the replacements and holding on to the kind words spoken of my fallen brother.

As the soldiers talked about their comrade, my replacements marched up and down the aisle, snapping pictures and taping video…still wearing their body armor. You can take that off, you’re inside a FOB. “That’s alright, sergeant, we’ll keep it on if it’s OK.” Hey, whatever floats your boat, Bud. They did heed my don’t-be-so-intrusive advice, which made me proud. There’s nothing worse than taking a private moment away from somebody… flashes and microphones tend to do that.

As the service wound to a close, I began looking for the folks we flew with. For the past year, I’ve more or less hitchhiked all across the country. We either drive with Strykers or MPs, or fly. This time, we flew with the “boss” and he’s a busy man. Want to talk to a buddy, too bad, got to go. Of course, the new guys don’t know this. That’s why I was there. I circled my index finger in a twirling, 360 motion, signaling the replacements that it’s go time. Then, I hear a loud cling. “Sorry, about that sergeant my weapon hit the ground when I knelt down.” That’s alright; just don’t let it happen again. The camera takes pictures; the weapon saves your life.

When we returned to our camp, one of the replacements came up to me and said, “Hey, sergeant, I really appreciate you showing us around and helping us out.” No problem, specialist, good to have you here.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Presidential Inauguration

So, I’ll be at the Presidential Inauguration this year. That’s right, me, the kid whose teachers said would never amount to anything more than a manure mover wearing overalls every day, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t know how it happened; it just happened. My commander got invites for 10 soldiers in my unit, including me. Since I learned the news, I’ve been picturing the celebrity lifestyle. The food will be fancy, the women incredible, and I’ll probably duck for cover at the drop of a spoon. Considering I’ve worn the same thing every day and I haven’t eaten with real silverware for a year, I probably won’t fit in. Also, I think I still have a pizza stain on my Class A’s. Even still, I’ve wondering about the whole thing…

“Son, my wife and I just want to thank you for your service.” Why thank you, sir. “So where are you stationed?” I just returned from Iraq, sir. “Wow, I was there for a couple days… you know visiting troops.” Yes, sir, we appreciate that. “My wife and I are just so proud of all you brave men and women.” Is this your wife sir? “Uh, no, it’s my… uh third cousin, Trudy. Her daddy is a plum farmer down in Alabama, New York. Fine man. Well, would you look at the time?” You take care now, son.” Thank you, sir.

I’m definitely trying the caviar. “What would you like, sir,” says the tuxedo server man in his snooty wish-I-were-British voice. By the time I get to the service line, I’ll have a couple of beers down me. I’ll have one of them there dilles on a cracker. “Oh, how cute, you’re drunk. You mean caviar. That suit looks good on you. What’s your name?” Uh, Sminklemeyer. “Silly, that’s not what your name tag says. You’re too funny. Say, I’m having a party…” Maybe I won’t have the cracker thing after all.

I’ll get to rub elbows with “W.” Knowing me, I’ll probably poke my eye when I salute. “Easy there, son, you’re not in Iraq anymore.” Sorry, sir, it’s just I’m nervous. “What’s there to be nervous about?” Well, you are the President, sir. “Nah, I’m just a man. Tell me about Iraq, son.” Well, sir, we are doing great things there and our soldiers perform every day, risking their lives to give this country freedom and to keep those assholes – I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to cuss – from entering the United States. “You sound like my kind of soldier. What did you do there?” I’m an Army journalist, sir, stationed, or was, in Mosul. I had the great opportunity to tell their story, sir, a story of courage and sacrifice. I’m proud of my fellow soldiers. “Is there any one thing that sticks out to you from your experience?” Although I want to say you can’t discard toilet paper in the toilet, I’ll refrain… yes, sir, I was at this school opening once and this child read an essay in English to the soldiers. There’s also this time that I saw a soldier take two bullets in the leg and one in the gut, but he kept fighting and saved his fellow squad members. I’ve seen the good and bad, but I prefer to remember the ribbon cuttings, the children’s smiles and the Iraqis who served me tea and bought presents. “You take care now, sergeant Sminklemeyer. Welcome home.”

Truth is, I’m honored to be invited to see good old George W. Bush take his second oath of office. How many times does this happen in one’s lifetime? And I doubt any of the above dialogue will become reality, at least I hope not. I just hope I don’t do anything stupid, like trip over an extension cord or spill a drink on a senator. Eh…. What are they going to do, send me to Iraq?

Selling the Mustang

Their uniforms seem to fit a little snug around the belly and they lack military bearing, but you got to love ‘em… they’re our replacements, our ticket home. Today, I back briefed my counterpart: Print NCOIC. As I told her all the things we’d accomplished, her jaw dropped. Not because of my devilish good looks or my baby blue eyes, but because we’ve done so much over the past year. We’ve covered every combat operation, every school opening and everything in between. We’ve taken 30,000 photos and written 600 stories. We produced 40 weekly newsletters and 4 full-color magazines. We’ve told the Soldier’s story and we’ve done it better than anybody. I am so proud of everything we accomplished, and now I’m handing over my “baby” to a bunch of newbies.

We didn’t replace anybody; we came to an area of operation that had no public affairs support. We built the public affairs monster in this fine city of Mosul. It’s like I just spent five years rebuilding a 1965 Cherry Red Mustang and I’m selling it as soon as the paint dries to a zit-faced rich kid. Don’t get me wrong, I want to get the heck out of here, but I’ve put my blood, sweat and tears into this mission and it’s just hard to let go. But I guess I have to, because the plane leaves soon.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The final shift

I haven’t slept in two days, and this kind of feels like a dream, as I write, trying to make sense of the words I type, so here goes…

Last night was my final guard shift – the all nighter. The only significant event was a car filled with people all holding AK-47s. They drove by so fast, and it was dark, so I couldn’t tell if they were enemies or allies. Needless to say, I didn’t shoot them. There were a couple explosions too, but nothing unordinary. A year ago, these things would have scared the crap out of me. Now, it’s just business as usual. I’ve had some pretty tense moments in the thick concrete tower. I’ll never forget my first shift… it was dark and cold and I was amazed at how bright the stars were. I had an interpreter and an Iraqi soldier with me. Somebody took a few pop shots at us, missing by a mile. Nevertheless, I about crapped my pants. I stayed hunkered down, shaking for a few minutes. The strangest thoughts went through my mind after my first enemy encounter, “Did I wear clean underwear? Will OSU make the Final Four? I wonder what I’ll have for breakfast.” I eventually calmed down and began to scan my sector again, but I’d been in Iraq for a week and was pretty scared. After awhile, guard duty was less frightening and just became a weekly routine.

By November, I had been with special forces a couple times and been on more than 20 large-scale operations. At this point, guard duty was a walk in the park compared to a lot of the other things I’d experienced. But there were still some pretty darn scary moments. Like this one time at Tower Duty, a truck load of dudes wearing red and white masks and black man dresses drove by just moments after we heard a report of nearly every police station in the city being overrun by people fitting this description. Again, they drove by so fast and were well hidden behind square buildings that we couldn’t get a shot in, but we reported it. Three or four explosions later, my battle buddy and I wanted to shoot some insurgents. “You ready to kill somebody,” said the most girly female soldier I’ve ever met.

Mostly though, tower duty is dull and painful, especially when you’re going on no sleep. Your muscles start twitching and your eye balls feel like they’re about to pop out. But, we always find a way to stay focused. I take a thermos of coffee every shift. I feel like that night-shift security guard at the bank in Milwaukee I see through the glass windows on Water Street, except I don’t fall asleep and I’m not 102. In fact, I’m probably a little too paranoid. People like to walk around in this country, and every person looks the same, like the enemy. Once I watched this man move rocks back and forth on his rooftop, which made for some good conversation. “What do you think he’s doing?” Well, he could be trying to distract us, but I bet he’s making a base for a rocket launcher. “Why would he do that?” Uh… let me think, maybe to kill us. Another time, four cars were broken down right in front of our tower. (Iraqis seem to have the worst luck with cars, which are always stranded on the roadside, but you can’t overlook ‘em.) “Looks like there are people getting out of the car.” Yeah, that’s what people do when they ride in cars, they eventually get out. “Could they be trying to plant a bomb?” Not unless, a spare tire and a jack can explode. “Could be a distraction, keep your eyes peeled.”

Of course, what would a guard tower be without graffiti? Some of the cleverest jokes can be found inside the walls of our towers and port-a-potties. Most are vile and perverted, so I won’t share ‘em, but I’ve never written a single line (you can get court marshaled for damaging government property and I’m a saint. Never touched a pen in the tower. Not once, I promise). The back wall reads, “turn around before you get shot in the back of the head.” Then, in perfect army graffiti form somebody wrote “why? So I can get shot in the face.” Only in Iraq is this funny.

Even though I’ve had some good laughs in this old tower, I won’t miss it one bit. In fact, I’m pretty darn glad that this was my final guard shift, because now I can get some sleep. Good night, or I guess good morning (if you’re in the states.) Me go sleepy.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

My mom, dad and little bro

Today, I want to take a step back and forget about this war, Iraq, the death, the destruction, and write about two people whom I deeply care about. My parents’ 27th anniversary is in two days and since I can’t be there to thank mom for putting up with dad all these years, I will write…

They met at a grocery store in Spencer, Okla., back in the late ‘70s. My father was a sacker. My mother, the checker, was way out of my dad’s league. Part Cherokee Indian, my mom had long, shiny black hair and dark skin. She wasn’t a beauty queen, but she could have been. My friends used to look at their wedding picture and ask “gosh, what did she see in your dad.” Pops was a scraggly kid with a bunch of zits. He was a trouble maker. As a kid, he tormented his younger brother. Once he set a booby trap that resulted in knocking out his little bro. When Russ came to, he asked what happened. “An apple hit you in the head,” my dad said. As ornery as he was in his early years, he matured quickly. He was a man at 16, working two jobs, going to school and maintaining his motor bike. I guess that’s what mom saw in him: a man who’d work his fingers to the bone just to support somebody he loved.

Around the time they met, mom was ironically dating an Army guy, who she canned when he was in boot camp. The man often referred to as “Billy K” went AWOL to get mom back. Too late, though, dad was moving in for the kill. For their first date, they went to a Pizza Hut, where my mom challenged dad to a “hot pepper” eating contest. Mom won, and I don’t think dad’s eaten a pepper since. I’m not sure how long they dated, but I was in the picture pretty soon. I was at their wedding, per se.

Friends offered to pay for an abortion, which obviously, I’m glad they declined. It was rough though, and I’m sure there were times, I drove them crazy. Mom was barely 18 and dad was 17 when I was born. Dad continued going to school and worked two jobs. He worked for a bakery and drove milk trucks. I think he was on a route when I was actually born, so I’m the reason a few folks in Oklahoma County didn’t get their milk on August 1, 1978.

Dad received his H.S. diploma and then enrolled in college. Mom had her hands full with me. He attended a small school, which has since been devastated by tornadoes, called Rose State. He worked two jobs, went to school full time and raised a family. I remember his college graduation. Mom said “Look, there’s your daddy. Look.” I tried climbing a light pole to get a good look, but I fell. It hurt. He came by and showed me his graduation medallion. At the time, I thought he was a war hero or something.

Then, came my baby brother. When mom was going into labor, I thought she was going to die or kill my dad. She was screaming like somebody was slowly driving a nail into her foot and grabbing my dad with those strong hands, not letting go. They dropped me off at grandma’s and grandpa’s and then went on to the hospital. I just bawled.

I later learned I had a brother. What a great joy, I thought, finally somebody else can get in trouble besides me. Nope. I got in more trouble as we grew older, and he got away with everything! My little brother shot me in the eye with a BB gun, and barely got a whippin’. He had mom’s dark skin and dad’s curly hair, and her affection when he broke something. He was my little bro, so I picked on him all the time. But the minute somebody else picked on him, I’d put a hurting on the perpetrator. We participated in the same sports and organizations. We rode bulls and broncos in rodeos, before he got hung up and nearly trampled. So, I made him quit while big brother kept riding. We showed pigs together in the FFA. Yes, that’s right, I was a farm boy and gosh darn proud. Once I paid $400 for a show pig, but of course, I was 14 or 15 and didn’t have any money. But dad, being the loving father he was and is, took on extra jobs just so my brother and I could participate in something together. And mom, she put up with two boys and a grown man coming in the house with pig manure caked on their clothes… not many beauty queens could take the smell of pig crap, trust me.

Then, I went off to college – go Pokes – and joined a fraternity. As I partied, I saw my family less and less… a time I wish I could take back, and spend more time with them. Nonetheless, my folks called all the time, encouraging me and ensuring I went to church. Then, I went to boot camp, where I read supportive letters from my family every day. After I graduated with a degree in agricultural communications – you learn how to talk to cows and pigs – I moved away from the only state I’d ever known. When telling my folks I was going away from home, I could tell they didn’t want me to leave. But all they said was “just chase your dreams, son. We love you.”

I took a job in Milwaukee, a place that is extremely cold and where I knew absolutely nobody. After two years of M-Town, I had a great job, made some wonderful friends and really liked the place and the people. I thought I was on top of the world at 24 and then I became sick.

Somewhere in between all the running in the woods and Army training, a tick bit me and changed my life. I came down with a rare form of Lyme disease. Swelling surrounded the back side of my brain, shutting the nerves off to the left side of my face and causing headaches that felt more like 2 million thumb tacks pressing against my brain. The complete left portion of my face dropped an inch. I looked like a Star Trek character. I went to the emergency room four times; each time being diagnosed with migraines. I put off telling mom and dad, because I didn’t want them to worry and well, I’m a grown boy now. When I called mom, who’s a medical professional, I could barely talk. I lost control of the entire left side and my lip flopped around like flabby man’s blubber on a run. Without hesitating or asking, my mom, my little bro and dad packed their bags and took the 16-hour drive from Oklahoma to Wisconsin. Mom went into the doctor’s office, not asking, demanding I be admitted and looked at by an infectious disease doctor. The way she handled the doctor reminded me of the time she chewed out one of my teachers for spreading roomers about me to her neighbors. “You will not talk bad about me boy, do I make myself clear?” Yes, said the teacher, who looked as if she saw a ghost. When it comes to her boys, my mom is not a lady you want to mess with.

My parents and little brother spent every day beside me in the hospital. And when I was OK to go home, but needed a nurse to hook up a daily IV, they were there to cook for me and clean my apartment and to feed my fish. They never said anything like “wow, this is really bad. The doctor says he’s never seen anything like this.” All they said was “I love you. And everything will be OK.”

Soon there after, I learned I’d be heading to Iraq. A lot of people say they realize how important their loved ones are when they go to war. Not me; I’ve always known. I love you, mom, dad and Jud. Happy Anniversary! Your boy will be home soon.

Monday, January 03, 2005

The enemy's information operations

If it were not for the other soldiers around me, I would have wept. The images will forever be ingrained in my memory, perhaps as a nightmare or a random thought: it will be there, somewhere, haunting me for the rest of my life. The man dressed in all black was pointing his finger at the camera, shouting Arabic. Then another man walked into the frame. He was also masked and dressed in black. They hugged. Another man, wearing the same black apparel, walked into the shot. This man was probably the leader, as he gave pats on the back, as if he were proud of this young man for whatever he was about to do. Then, a familiar building popped up on the screen – the FOB Marez chow hall. The camera operator said something in Arabic, then in a split second, the lives of countless people were changed forever. You could barely hear the explosion through the speakers of my laptop. The white cloud of smoke hovered over the tent and the video stopped. The person behind the camera was no doubt using a high-tech telephoto lens. He was more than likely a professional, somebody who worked for Saddam’s “Make Me Look Good” television network. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen his work. Part of our job is to defeat the enemy’s information operations by exploiting the positive news and to handle crisis communications. In order to combat their messages, we must know what they are. Thus, I’ve been subjected to the enemy’s propaganda for work, not pleasure.

The first time I saw the my opposite’s toil was of a local worker’s beheading. The same man stood before the camera pointing and yelling. He pulled out a foot-long Arabic saber and made the soon-to-be beheaded man speak. The man’s final words… “I was wrong about the Jihad. They are every where and much stronger than I thought.” Translation: Our numbers are few, so we will scare people. The masked man with the blade grabbed the worker’s hair, pulled back his head and slowly moved the knife back and forth at the base of his neck, like a dull handsaw on a hickory tree, until his body, headless, fell to the ground.

Most recently, I watched a truck bomb explode outside of a Mosul base. This didn’t have the dramatic ending the enemy anticipated, but we still lost a beloved soldier. My heart is truly with OS and his family. The suicide bomber loaded a dump truck with 1,000 pounds of explosives and attempted to ram the front gate. No doubt, it was the same cameraman with his telephoto lens… I could tell from the angle. This time, they only posted it on their web site and didn’t alert the media of their bomb. One dead soldier is not a big enough victory for them.

Through their external information operations, you can easily gather we face an evil enemy. Fittingly, they tend to dress themselves in all black while our desert uniforms resemble a lighter tan color. My commander said it best when he said “we’re out of the Cold War, my friend. Today, our enemy has no regard for human life. He is truly evil.” Our enemy does not represent a country, religion or race. He simply represents himself and his bank account, but he is extraordinarily successful at making the world believe otherwise. The enemy likes people to think that they are fighting for Islam, for Iraq and to push out those who occupy their country. They attract young, undereducated, poor 20-to-30-something year-old Muslims. They convince these ill-advised Iraqi men they will go to heaven if they die in the fight. The enemy promises large sums of money to the men’s family, if they drive a vehicle born explosive device into a U.S. or Iraqi Security forces convoy. If they fail, they’re sacrifice was not worthy enough for Allah, which means the men behind the masks don’t pay the family as much.

They also spread lies, which we react to. In June, the enemy told news agencies there were floating headless bodies in the Tigris. Of course, the news guys ran with it without confirming the facts. Luckily, we caught the erroneous report in time before the talking heads started analyzing every small detail. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke out, the enemy spammed pseudo photography to Iraqi newspapers – portraying non-Americans molesting prisoners. My colleague met with every Mosul reporter about the photos, pointing out that American soldiers don’t have beards and that we blouse our boots and that we certainly don’t wear white T-shirts under our uniform. Not a single paper ran with the pictures.

The enemy depicts us as infidels, Godless people who will rape your women, kill your children and burn your homes. Banners are posted throughout the city that say “rise against the infidels.” We post banners and billboards too, but these display images of hope and the future, not death. That’s our information operations: to spread the positive news. We don’t ignore the bad news and we don’t spread lies. We simply tell the truth, good or bad.

And the truth is that the enemy commits acts against humanity every day, some of which I wish I had never seen. But I am a public affairs soldier and not about to let the enemy win the information war. Although the bullets I carry will kill a few, the written words of truth, hope and the future will crush the enemy’s back, exposing him for the fraud he really is. If you doubt this, remember, good always prevails.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

From the smells to toilets to flirting, I miss America

People always ask me what I miss about the states, and I have never really given it much thought until now … I’m so close to going home that the beautiful visions of America flash before my eyes every single day. In no particular order, I put together a little list.

American toilets. If you have hemorrhoids, Iraq is not the country to visit. Unless you’re at a wealthy person’s house or a well-off business, you will conduct your “business” in a small hole in the ground that is more than likely covered with “misses” and has NEVER been cleaned. Once I was at a Muktar’s house in this deserted village and I had explosive diarrhea. You will find no toilet paper in the average Iraqi home. For the most part, Muslims don’t use toilet paper. Luckily, I always carry field-issued soft tissue paper and have never been in jeopardy of you know what. The buildings that now facilitate Americans have since been modified to meet our bathroom needs. Toilets have been erected in the palaces… of course the lids are as sturdy as a Wal-Mart Frisbee (even in Iraq, the U.S. Army buys from the cheapest bidder), but at least we have something. In each bathroom, reads this sign “Please discard your toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet. If you dispose materials in the toilet, these privileges will be taken away.” When I first arrived here, I often wondered if the Army created the “toilet paper” police. Anyway, Iraqi sewage facilities were not made for Americans, which is why I miss my quaint little bathroom with a gold fish shower curtain. My apartment also overlooks Lake Michigan, but that has nothing to do with American toilets; I just wanted to brag about my apartment.

Smells. When you walk outside in America, you may not realize it – because you’re so used to it – but your nostrils are being filled with the sweet aromas of fresh air, flowers, barbeque and a pretty girl’s perfume. Here, you smell poop, sour milk and burning trash. And just when you think you’ve smelled it all, you smell something else. I remember a raid in Al Kut, southern Iraq. We knocked down the door of a house and two soldiers threw up as soon as they walked in. I nearly lost my lunch too, but was able to cover my face in time. Iraqis like their food either pickled or fried, most of which is quite tasty. This lady – who by the way was married to a terrorist – was pickling something in a 20-gallon horse trough. The sharp odor was a cross between vinegar and rotten eggs. After thoroughly searching the house, somebody suggested we feel around in the trough. Nobody volunteered. Also, personal hygiene is just different. While I find most Iraqis to be sweet people, even the most dignified do not wear deodorant. I am not knocking their culture, but sometimes a couple guys I work with are a little ripe. Once I was covering a meeting that featured two Iraqi mayors. I sat between the two. As hard as I tried, I could not take notes because both of them would raise their hands to talk, which means the pits were exposed. I acted like I had a cough all meeting. Again, I hope I don't come off as offensive on this particular subject; I'm sure I smell to them too.

Clothes. I wear the same thing every day. For once, I’d like to wear jeans and a T-shirt.

Beer. It’s been a year. Enough said.

Driving. I cannot wait to drive on a road and not worry about blowing up. Roadside bombs, car bombs and weapons are things I won’t miss much at all. I wonder how I’ll drive upon my return. I’ll probably jump curbs and dodge potholes, causing a huge pile up on I-94. I’ll scan rooftops for snipers and stop when there’s an abandoned car on the roadside, and search for explosives. “Officer, I was just inspecting this car for a bomb.” Imagine telling that to the cops. I recall driving into the fog once in downtown Mosul. We saw people in black outfits darting across the road. We couldn’t tell if they had weapons, but they probably did. Then this came across the radio, “Be advised, 20 men in all black were seen with mortar tubes and RPGs on your route. How copy? Over.” I look forward to listening to my favorite band – CSNY – on the radio.

Friends and family. Without the letters, emails and packages from those I love most, this experience would have been much more difficult. They always tell me how proud they are and that they pray all the time for my safety. I am a truly lucky guy, because I have a grandma who writes me every day, a mother who sends me the yummiest treats, a brother (who owes me a CD!), a dad who tries to keep me updated on sports scores, cousins who say “I love you,” aunts who make me scrapbooks, uncles who give me their lifelong keepsakes for luck, a grandpa who bought a computer just so he could email me and tons of friends who’ve sent me everything from beef jerky to touching Christmas cards.

Flirting. I won’t lie; I am the master of flirting with the ladies. That sounded conceited, so let me rephrase that. If I’m lucky, girls talk to me. And if I’m not blushing or sweating, I’ll talk back. When a pretty girl walks up to me, I get nervous and I lose my “cool guy” demeanor. Plus, I’m completely out of practice. The last time I hit on a girl, I was a year younger and didn’t have grey hair. I think what I’ll do to compensate for my lack experience is buy a shirt that says, “Been to Iraq for a year and have a fat bank account.” I can’t believe I just wrote that.

Running. I ran a marathon in 2002. For fun, I run, bike and swim… I’ve competed in a few triathlons. I hate running here, because of the smells and you never know when mortars are going to fall. Back in July, I went for a good three miler and as soon as I finished, a mortar landed about 300 meters away. Had I not pushed myself for the final mile, I could have very well been at the site of impact. Needless to say, I am not as motivated to do my favorite activity. Consequently, I’ve put on 15 pounds.

Television. I’ve missed two seasons of the Simpsons, Sopranos and 24. We have T.V. here but it’s Army T.V., which means you’re subjected to “Big Brother” commercials, telling you not to fraternize with soldiers and to make sure you fill out supply forms properly. The other option we have is Arabic T.V., which isn’t that bad – for 30 seconds. Their version of MTV is like fingers to a chalkboard, but at least these stations are educational even though I can’t understand a word. Most Arabic countries complain that our culture is too provocative, but the girls on Arabic MTV dress even more scandalous than Christina Aguilera. In other words, whether they want to admit it, they like girls in bikinis too. I digress. I’m not really a T.V. guy, but when I get home, I’ll probably spend two weeks on the couch with a remote in hand, watching good-old fashion American television.

Weekends. I love it when my friends email me on Friday, ending the note with “have a good weekend.” What’s a weekend? It’s been so long since I’ve had a day off that I wouldn’t even know what to do if I were given one. When you’re at war, there are no breaks, holiday bonuses and there certainly are no weekends. Even if you do get a break, all it takes is a car bomb, mortar or rocket to ruin it.

Sports. I probably miss football and baseball the most. I am a huge sports fan even though I despise Barry Bonds and hope all his records are stricken from the record books. I miss sitting in Miller Park with my feet on the empty seat in front of me, drinking an ice-cold beer and eating a dog. When I went home on leave, my pops and I saw Okie State (my alma mater) play Iowa State. At the end of every Cowboys touchdown, they’d fire a cannon… I flinched and looked for cover without even thinking. Back when my fellow Delta Chi brothers and I watched these games, I jumped out of my seat after the boom. This time, I was shaking.

Worry free. I can’t wait to have peace of mind… to not worry about dying or my soldiers dying; not that I focus on death, but it’s in the back of everybody’s mind, which keeps you focused on the mission and staying alive. The day you lose focus is the day you could cause you or your buddy to be killed. And that’s not happening on my watch. We’re all going home – together.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Logan, Iraqi Boy Wonder

I was introduced to Logan in May when I was embedded with an infantry unit. I have never met a more amazing kid. Today was the first time I've seen him in six months. I was relieved he was still alive. Here’s the story I wrote way back when on this little boy wonder…

Iraqi boy assists Soldiers as an interpreter and a friend
MOSUL, Iraq – If the Army had an adopt-a-child program, Logan would be the poster child. For more than a year, the 13-year-old boy, who contends he’s 13 and a half, has lived and worked with Coalition forces at a forward operating base in Mosul. The boy speaks four languages and his official title at the FOB is translator and supervisor, but he is a Soldier at heart.
“I love American Soldiers. I want to help them in every way possible, because without them we (Iraqis) would have nothing,” said Logan, who also speaks Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish and is currently learning Spanish. “When Saddam ruled Iraq, he would kill somebody for speaking English or Kurdish. Things were very bad, but now we are much happier and I can speak all my languages freely.”
Not a day goes by that Logan doesn’t use his four languages. At the FOB, he helps Soldiers with more than 50 workers, who maintain buildings, electricity and plumbing.
“It would be very difficult to do my job without Logan. Some of the workers only speak Kurdish, Turkish or Arabic. Rather than having a translator for each group, Logan can talk to all of them,” said Staff Sgt. Phillip Powers, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the contracted workers on the FOB. “We tell him what we need done and then he supervises the workers on the project. Sometimes you forget he’s just a kid because he’s telling grown men what to do.”
Even though he’s barely 4 foot 10 inches, Logan is the big man at the FOB. He knows every Soldier by name and the Soldiers believe that the camp would not function without him.
“Everybody looks forward to talking to Logan,” said Spc. Jim Pelletier, scout platoon, 2/3. “He’s funny and is always asking if there’s anything he can get us at the market. Plus, when people first see a kid bossing around workers for the first time, they want to meet him and hear his story.”
Logan’s story is both compelling and sad. His uncle was killed by members of Saddam Hussein’s regime for speaking Turkish in Baghdad. One of 11 children, Logan learned English from his mother, who speaks seven languages. His father, who provided magazines to U.S. Army Soldiers during the first Gulf War, always told Logan about how great American Soldiers were. Even before Logan met a man in uniform, he liked Americans.
“Logan sees how American Soldiers act, and he tries to imitate their actions from the way he treats his workers to lifting weights to being confident,” said Sgt. Maj. Michael Brown, 2/3’s staff sergeant major. “In a lot of ways, he is a Soldier.”
Logan already owns two U.S. Army uniforms and although they barely fit him, it’s his dream to one day see specialist rank on the collar and his name on the chest.
“I want to be an American Soldier when I grow up,” he said. “I really want to be a specialist because those are the guys doing all the work.”
With tours with the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division and the Stryker Brigade, when Logan enlists, he may be the most experienced private to ever join the Army.

When I found Logan, I knew his story would make an award-winning piece… but, I didn’t want to write it, because I was worried of the terrorists seeing his name, his photo and then track him down and kill him. Over a slice of Iraqi-made pizza, Logan asked me to write his story. I get this all the time, but never from Iraqi interpreters. I told him the dangers of such publicity and he said, “I don’t care. More people need to support us.” So, I wrote it, but I didn’t use his real name or where he was located.

His old unit has since redeployed to the states, but Logan now interprets for a high-ranking officer. He has perfect diction and could fit in at any American Junior High School, but the minute somebody talks trash on American soldiers, he’ll put a hurtin’ on ‘em.

He got kicked out of school for pulling a knife on a kid, who said “My dad says you’re working with infidels. He said you should be killed.” Well, Logan loves soldiers, and he’s got a tough-guy mentality just like us. And just like us, he’d take a bullet to save a soldier’s life.

In fact, he brags that he’s on two blacklists – a most wanted list – for the enemy. I think the only list I was on at 14 was the principal’s most likely to paddle list. (I hold the record in my middle school for the most swats in a week). If kids these days think they have problems with boyfriends, girlfriends and cleaning their room, maybe they should hear Logan’s story. And perhaps, they can hear it in person.

For some time, there’s been a plan to get this kid to the states. Now that he’s on blacklists, he may be granted asylum. “I want to be an American,” he said to me today.
I put one hand around his tiny shoulders and the other atop his John Deer hat and said, “Logan, you already are an American. You’re wearing Nikes.”