In Iraq for 365

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

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.

113 Comments:

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Brian H said...

So, civilization = sewage systems, sanitation, and personal hygiene. Sounds like a good rule of thumb!

BTW, you wrote "concede" when you meant "conceit", I think! :)

 
At 11:08 AM, Blogger JUST A MOM said...

If ya need help in the girls department, I got a couple who could really use a guy like you. They seem to think, ya know, I don't know what their thinkin! But I do know any mother of a girl you hook up with will be proud to have you as part of their family.
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At 11:40 AM, Blogger Cam said...

Thanks for shedding light on what it's really like away from the good old USA. I hope you get to return soon and enjoy things that we all take so much for granted. What an interesting read!
Stay safe!

 
At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your posts. They are very candid and so helpful in helping us to understand what your life is like in Iraq.

We take so much for granted in America. We have it so good over here compared to alot of the world. We are truly blessed.

Maybe someday soon Iraq will be blessed too with good things in their everyday living.

I have nothing against Germans either but my husband was stationed in Germany in the Army in the late 60's (dates me I guess Ha!) but they didn't use deodorant either or take a bath but once a week. You could hardly stand to ride a bus over there for smelling old sweat. Sorry about that but I had to tell you Ha!

Take care and keep dodging those bullets, mortars etc. We appreciate your service to our country soooo much!!

 
At 3:22 PM, Blogger Caroline said...

Okie State alumnus, eh? Sorry about the Alamobowl . . . but at least they made it to a bowl game?

Re: "'Been to Iraq for a year and have a fat bank account.' I can’t believe I just wrote that."

Oh, but you did! Shame, shame, shame (insert disapproving nod). I'll alert the ladies when it comes time for your return.

Happy New Year, Cowboy!

 
At 5:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, anybody traveled to Eastern Europe recently? The first thing I do when I go visit my parents is to go and buy a different, not like sandpaper, toilet paper. It beats me; they have a nice one available at stores but they still buy that cheap making-your-butt-skin-bruise-hard toilet paper. Brrr… I traveled a lot in Easter Europe and Africa and I can tell MANY really good stories, including one of rescuing a small girl from a toilet-in-the-ground pit … I vomited for the rest of the day, not to mention, I smelled funny for at least a week (even with scrapping my skin red). Anyway, I always say that you can judge the economic level of each country by the quality of its bathrooms/restrooms/toilets etc.
Your reflections about smell made me think about something. Have you ever been in the small tent with other already smelly people high on the snowy mountain and somebody wants to eat raw garlic (it’s good for cold)? Well, the first time I was in that situation I said “no thanks” and I regretted it profusely later. Next night I ate garlic too. After a week, you stop smelling anything and even eat chocolate with garlic – chocolate for energy, garlic so you don’t get sick. And NEVER depend on the fog when you're going "potty".
Changing topic - you are very lucky with your family. It looks like they are great bunch of people. Also, if you like triathlons you should come and visit Boulder, CO.
Anyway, I enjoyed your post today. It made me laugh and reflect how good my life is today.
Happy New Year for you and your Family!
Agnieszka
Denver, CO

 
At 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting to read your blog because my nephew is in Mosul too. I'll be reading it every day. "sis" from the usa

 
At 6:11 PM, Blogger JJ said...

First 2Slick now you in the same day...what a bummer. Two of the best milblogs are going :-(.

Based on personal experience (RVN 68-69) you'll jump at everything for at least a month. It will take much longer for your heart not to go to your throat after every sudden big BANG.

Your diarrhea story made me laugh and reminded me of my dizzly sh*t story....Christmas day when the "Donut Dolly's" landed at our LZ....there I was perched on the crapper with nothing between me and the girls but my smile as they walked up to the company perimeter...

Thanks for taking the time to help the rest of us understand what's going on in Iraq. You have served both your country and your fellow man with honor.

 
At 9:02 PM, Blogger Sean said...

Well, make sure you don't come to NYC and take a taxi ride. They say smells are very effective at triggering memories, and these fellas in the taxis haven't lost their native hygenie habits (or lack thereof).

 
At 4:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did not know you were an Okie, Me too, my unit is out of Stillwater, just off of Boomer Lake by the blue water tower. The 366 MP CO. glad to here you are on your way home. If you are in S-water next month we should get a beer. Let me know O_U_T_L_A_W_43@yahoo.com. Greg C

 
At 3:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in the Air Force and stationed in the Philippines from the mid-80s to early 90s. Like you we also had big brother television, though some of the PSAs were so corny they were funny.

What I remember is whenever someone got a VHS of television from the States everyone would start crying "next!" as if they had some claim on your tape. (LOL)

I remember watching an "In Living Color" tape right around Christmas and had read an article on Dear Abby's efforts to get cards to military personnel in the Stars & Stripes. As I was watching the tape it hit me what we really needed. It wasn't cards, it was commercials!

I remember watching with awe seeing commercials for television shows and movies I'd never heard of. The commercials were so obnoxiously American that you just had to love them after being away from the US for a year or two. All of the commercials, too, for food, drink, cars, etc.

The other thing I remember is how long it took me to stop checking peoples hands for pistols when I was out in public. I hadn't realized how much living in a high threat environment from terrorism affected me until I realized I wasn't a target out on the street just for being an American anymore.

Lastly, thank you for serving.

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