In Iraq for 365

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

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Nightmare

It’s the same nightmare every time… I’m in the town of Avgoni on an operation. We’re moving through the woods. Then shots are fired. A soldier next to me is hit in the neck. I try to help him, but it’s hopeless. He’s lost too much blood as he goes into shock. In the dream, I can feel somebody watching me even as the medics move and a platoon secures a perimeter for a helicopter. The kid is young, maybe 20, and I just look into his lifeless blue eyes while the medics move him to the evacuation point. I feel like I’m invisible and nobody in the dream seems to recognize me or realize I’m standing there with a camera and an M-16. Everybody leaves. And then I am back at the Palace, where again I feel invisible. At my desk is a CD with Arabic writing. I pop it into my laptop, and it’s a video of me.

I’m standing over the dead soldier just looking at him. There’s a rustling in the bushes and I look toward the noise… I’m staring directly into the camera. Somebody is speaking in Arabic and strangely, in the dream, I understand it. The people behind the camera simply say “we’re watching you.” Then, the barrel of an AK comes into the frame pointing right at me… this is when I wake up.

The dream has caused many sleepless nights to the point that I don’t fall asleep until 7 or 8 when I can no longer keep my eyes open. Once, I woke up in a different room that I didn’t fall asleep in. Another time, I was sweating profusely. Last night, I spoke of the dream to some friends and it really freaked ‘em out. I also had the dream again last night. This time, I called one of those 1-800 help lines the army provides. When I made the call, I realized my hands were trembling. I think I was more afraid of just talking to somebody… it’s hard to admit something like this, but I don’t want it to control my life. In other words, I know I need help.

The lady on the other end was sweet. She asked me all sorts of questions, like how do you feel around people. I answered truthfully… I feel uncomfortable around everybody even close friends. I’m always on edge, unless I have a few drinks in me. And I hate being in crowded places. I told her the only time I feel at ease is when I’m in my car all alone just driving and listening to Crosby Stills Nash and Young or when I’m running with my dog. She said that’s because I’m in control of the situation and that everything I’m feeling and going through is completely normal. She commended me for calling and set up an appointment for a counselor.

I’ve never been to a shrink before, but I’m not ashamed or afraid. I just don’t want to deal with it 10 years from now. I survived a war, and I’m going to make damn sure I survive peace.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

I'm more sensitive

There’s nothing more annoying in this world than a girl talking to her friend in a coffee shop when you’re trying to write. This girl whom I’ll call Betsy Talksalot has a white streak in her reddish, blond hair. She kind of looks like a skunk, but she’s cute and could even be hot if she just didn’t talk. Her legs are toned, eyes blue and her skin appears to be soft with a few freckles on her cheeks. Just looking at her, I’d rate her an 8 out of 10. But then she talks. With one sentence lasting roughly two or three minutes, her stock drops to about a 4.

Betsy Talksalot, “Oh, when Steve and I first got together, I couldn’t believe the color in his apartment. I mean, who mixes red and blue. That’s why when we bought our house, I made sure he didn’t pick anything out. Oh, that reminds me. Did I ever tell you about that cute guy at Home Depot? Oh, he smiled at me when I was picking out colors. Steve wasn’t there, so I flirted a little. It was a lot of fun. Anyway, when we painted the bedroom… blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Betsy not only talked a lot, she also talked very loud. But her friend, whom I’ll call Samantha Sponge, just absorbed every bit of her friends annoying rants. Ms. Sponge was rather large, and no doubt has endured countless of these one-sided conversations from Ms. Talksalot. As Betsy rants, Ms. Sponge knows when to say “Yeah” or “Uh, huh” or “no”, but she never really says more than “you’ve got to be kidding.” I’m only listening because they’re louder than the dang radio, playing elevator music! But, I guess it’s good training for me. You see, I don’t have much tolerance for stupid conversations. There was a time that I would have interrupted Ms. Talksalot and said “Excuse me. Excuse me. Yeah, would you mind taking that white streak of yours and moving somewhere else? Your voice is like Martha Stuarts at a sentence hearing. And since there is no reward for me to endure your stupid conversation, I’m going to have to ask you to move before you drive me crazy. Thank you.”

In college, my friends always worried that I would piss somebody off. One time, this girl turned my friend down, so I walked up to her and said, “hey, I’ve seen you naked.” No doubt shocked by the introduction, she simply said, “no, you must have me mistaken for somebody else.” “No, that guy over there. Yeah, you slept with him once. He’s my roommate and I saw you naked last week.” Still shocked, she said “No, I’m sorry. You must be mistaken.” This is where I get ugly, to the point at which I am now ashamed. “Nope, I’d never forget a nose like that.” She gasped and then searched for guys to beat me up. My friends have countless stories like that, but not anymore. I’m a changed man.

Now, it’s like the old me is buried underneath a wall of sensitivity and I am more patient. I find myself actually listening to people when they talk, even if the conversation isn’t with me. I guess you could say that Iraq made me more appreciative of people’s feelings. In addition, in Iraq, you had to always listen to soldiers talking just in case they were violating operational security. Many times, Joes will brag about a future operation. They could say too much in a place where they shouldn’t, so somebody needs to correct them if they do. Nonetheless, I’m not in Iraq anymore but I’m still listening.

That’s why I just sit there and listen, even in the most annoying situations.

Ms. Talksalot, “When Steve proposed to me, I felt a tingling sensation all thru my body. I knew he was the one for me from the moment I saw him. I love him so much.”

Ms. Sponge, “Honey, that’s so sweet. I’m so happy for you.”

I was happy for her too, because she was quiet for two minutes after she said that. And I didn’t say one word to her.

When soldiers do well, they're rewarded by their leadership. Posted by Hello

Kids love cameras. Posted by Hello

This kid could really kick the soccer ball around. He had some real skills. Posted by Hello

A Fox News guy named Kelly Wright getting ready before his stand up. That's a comb in his hand, not a microphone. Posted by Hello

This lady was really mean. Posted by Hello

That flag grows on you after awhile. Posted by Hello

Iraqi kids love soccer. Posted by Hello

Crater from a car bomb. Posted by Hello

This was on a civil affairs operation. Inside a mud hut in a village near Tal Afar, a man breaks out his silver tea set. I got a lot of sugar. Posted by Hello

Iraq isn't just desert. There's plenty of green. Posted by Hello

The .50 cal is a great weapon. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


When I started blogging, a legend was beginning to be censored. His name to the internet world was simply “CB” and his blog My War was the most widely read of its kind. If you’ve never read his blog, it’s too late to visit the site and read the compelling, first-person accounts of Spc. Colby Buzzell, a soldier with Bco, 1-23 (Tomahawks). Buzzell was stationed in the same city as me and I was even embedded with his company, but I never met him. At least, I don’t think I did. Anyway, his blog was turned into a book and will hit the bookshelves in the fall. His first chapter is featured in the latest edition of Esquire.

Buzzell envied the great writer Hunter S. Thompson, who recently killed himself, but Colby himself could really tell a story in the sort of raw, uncensored form not found in most milblogs. The way he captured combat through words made the war real for thousands, if not millions, of Americans. I admired the way he wrote even when he knew his posts were being read by his commander, battalion commander and the brigade commander. His work was deemed “inappropriate” by his leaders and he eventually quit writing, which I assume was an order. At the time, he garnered so much attention that we were tasked with writing a story on “milblogging” and all army types with blogs were afraid that they were being read by their leaders. This is why there is a huge gap in my posts.

A few readers have made comments to me that my writing reminded them of CB’s, which to me is one heckuva compliment. CB was kind of like Rosa Parks for milbloggers. He more or less put us on the map. I am really happy for Buzzell and will be one of the first to buy his book.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Soap slivers, shampoo and scars

As the hot water splashes against my nude body, I’m in search of shampoo. But I can’t find any. The shower is filled with body washes, conditioners and skin creams. My shower, which was once a one bar of soap and White Rain kind of place, has been turned into the Mecca of creams and oils. When I finally find “Zinc” shampoo amidst the 17 other bottles of fancy named stuff, the hot water runs out.

It’s my little brother’s bathroom now. I haven’t permanently lived here in eight years, and he has long curly blond hair. He’s a guitar player and I’m a short-haired meat and potatoes kind of fellow. Needless to say, he cares a lot more about his hair than I do mine. Shoot, all I need is a bar of Zest and I’m good to go.

This is just one example of how things are different for me. In Iraq, I had to walk through gravel and share a shower trailer with five or six other swinging Joes. After awhile, you got used to it, but I can’t say I enjoyed the shower situation. And now, the bathroom is just a few feet away and I don’t have to worry about soap slivers clogging the drain. I need not worry about mortars falling through the ceiling and not once has the power went out while I’m scrubbing behind my ears. Peace of mind in the shower is truly bliss. My old shower trailer looked like Swiss cheese after a rocket attack, and every morning the Turkish workers walked in – while I’m showering – to clean the place. Once, the guy actually opened my shower curtain. This man violated my privacy; he saw me naked. I would have turned him in, but he’d get fired and those poor guys really need the work. However, I let him know that my private parts are private in my best Turkish. So as you can imagine, even showering in Iraq was stressful. At home, it’s nice and peaceful.

The showering life will be perfect after I buy some White Rain; it’s the cheapest stuff in the store.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Running with Abby

Her soft hair is black and her eyes dark brown. She licks total strangers and likes to swim with the fishies. She only barks at squirrels or when mom and dad pull into the driveway. Her name is Abby and when I'm home, she's my running partner. She hasn't heard from me in a year, and since she doesn't know how to read or write and doesn't have an email account, we've not communicated for a while. But like all good friends, we picked up where we left off: with a leash and our favorite running trail.

Iraq was not an easy place to exercise. I'm not a weightlifting or a treadmill guy; I am a former marathon runner and an aspiring triathlete, which means I love the freedom of running and biking. I could never get a good run in Mosul. The air was just too polluted and there was always the fear of mortars falling on top of you. One mortar landed about 200 meters from me once on a run. Had I not pushed myself hard, I would have been torn to shreds by shrapnel. So, after my butt has put on 20 pounds and I'm in the worst shape of my life, I am very happy to run again, especially with Abby.

We found Abby when she was just a pup. She was abandoned by her original owners and left to die or survive in rural Oklahoma. This happens all the time... People dump unwanted pets in rural areas, hoping somebody else will adopt them and give the animals homes. Most of the time, the dogs and cats are picked up by the animal control centers after they've eaten a farmer's chicken or growled at a child and then put to sleep. The original owners don't care, however, as long as they don't have to pay for the $20 a week in dog food. My neighborhood, which is in the country of Oklahoma County, is a common dumping ground for negligent pet owners, who fail to take responsibility for their promiscuous pets.

If my mom were a vigilante, she'd track down these "alleged" animal dumpers and beat the crap out of 'em. She hates to see animals suffer, so she oftentimes adopts these animals and finds homes for them. Many have become young Sminklemeyers.

When I first met Abby, she was six or seven months old. She had a playful spirit, nudging my knee and licking my hand. It's as if she could sense that I loved running. The first time we went running together, I was outside stretching and she carried a rope and whined. She wanted to go too. Little did I know that we would form a special bond beyond "man's best friend." We were running buddies.

Yesterday, we ran our shortest path. I'm so out of shape that I was actually embarrassed to take her with me... I didn't want her to think that I'd become a fatty fat fat. But I had to take her with me. She looked at me with those big, brown eyes and stole my heart just like she did three years ago.

The first quarter mile Abby was in heaven. Her stride was perfect and she paced me perfectly. It's like she could sense that her old running buddy is a little out of practice. At about the half mile point, I realized she didn't sense anything... She's just as much out of shape as me. As we approached the mile marker, she started breaking the rules... She tried to go to the bathroom, which means she was trying to catch her breath. I had to remind her of the rules: 1) no stopping; 2)no sniffing the roadsides; 3)no chasing the cars. As she attempted to stop, I simply said, "Come on, girl, we're almost there." She looked at me as if she were scared. It's apparent that Abby was beaten as a pup. By who, we'll never know, because we never met the original owners. When you raise your hand to scratch your head, she shakes and hunkers down preparing to be hit. Puppies never forget, so when she gets like this, I pet her. After the encouragement, she was back in stride. I noticed she had a slew of grey hairs along her belly... I guess she's not the only one aging.

We hit the stop sign, the halfway point and both of us we're pooped. But she knew as well as I did that we had to finish strong, so we picked it up a notch. She was panting hard, and my muscles were burning. As much as we both love running, I think we both wanted to quit. But we received strength from each other. When I slowed down, she sped up and vice versa. We're a great team.

After we completed the two miles in a turtle pace of 17:23, I fell to the ground. She jumped on top of me and licked my face like an ice cream cone. I think this was her way of telling me that she missed me.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

At an Iraqi National Guard graduation, a platoon leader runs through smoke while his platoon follows. They like to make a big show of their graduations, which was fine by me... it made for good photography. Posted by Hello

After I took this photo, I climbed the wall, the first of three walls I'd climb that night. One wall fell on top of me and broke my camera. It banged my hand up pretty good too, but I was OK. Posted by Hello

This was in Al Kut, which is about 16 hours from Mosul. We packed our bags on a day's notice and moved there to fight al Sadr's militia. When we arrived, there were few signs of his force. However, the people loved us. It's like they were thankful that we were there to fight a long-time foe of their's. Posted by Hello

The soldier searching the Iraqi is a true hero. I was tasked with writing a story on him. He saved the lives of two soldiers and an Iraqi Police officer. They were conducting a boat patrol when one of them sunk. He jumped into the water and pulled three people to safety. He has one regret, however, and that was that he couldn't save the fourth person, who drowned in the Tigris River. Spc. Jeff Newberry received the Soldier's Medal for his heroism that cold day in January. Posted by Hello

Spc. Aaron Thomas. Great guy. Posted by Hello

Rarely did I travel with a squad or platoon with guys who didn't care for each other. This particular squad was one of the most dynamic teams I'd ever worked with. On this particular operation, we were clearing neighborhoods after insurgents had taken over the police stations in Mosul. Mortars were falling all around, but these guys stayed focused and worked together.  Posted by Hello

Monday, February 14, 2005

This is one of my favorite shots. We'd climbed about 20 rooftops that day and I was really tired, so I was happy. Posted by Hello

The lighting was perfect. Posted by Hello

Right: Sgt. David Mitts. May he rest in peace. Posted by Hello

This poor kid had cancer inside his tongue. We paid to have it removed. Posted by Hello

Seconds after I snapped this photo, we began receiving fire. This was in a small village called Avgoni. The place was so green that it look nothing like the rest of the country. Posted by Hello

We were flying over the Tigris and I was waiting for the perfect shot.  Posted by Hello

This is Spc. John Shore. He is a native Australian and one heckuva American sniper. I wrote a story on him back in August. His mother wrote me a very sweet email that ended with "you truly depicted my son for who he is." Her words meant a lot. Posted by Hello

Meet Pfc. Almusowi, the soldier featured in a previous post. Posted by Hello