In Iraq for 365

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

Monday, August 29, 2005

To say that Joe (left) and I are odd is an understatement. When we get together, we are automatic trouble. I�m surprised we never ended up in jail. Here, we are causing a ruckus on the plane ride to Kuwait. We got in trouble for singing stupid songs. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, August 27, 2005

One of the many Iraqi training events I witnessed, this particular session featured some of the top Iraqi soldiers raiding a make-shift house. They stormed through each room and fired at targets. They were really good. Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 26, 2005

I tamed that Iraqi horse. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Today, I ate at my favorite restaurant. I enjoyed a steak, Spinach salad and cup of coffee. Sitting across from me was this cute elderly couple, who started a conversation.

“What do you do, son?”

I’m a writer and former military.

“Really, I was in the Navy. In the Pacific back in World War II. My brother was in the Navy, too. He fought the war from Miami Beach. I always give him heck for that.”

The gentleman told me his life story, ending every sentence with “I’ve had a good life. I’m 82 years old, you know, and don’t have a single health problem.”

He said his wife made him take a job he didn’t want, and 35 years later, he retired. Currently, he lives off his pension and dances on the weekends. He spoke slowly and sipped coffee in between sentences, reminding me of my grandfather with his deep voice. I found him to be pleasant and very interesting, but our conversation ended when he spoke of how things were in his day.

“When I was your age, everybody worked except for the $%^&**$”

The words hurt. If you want to break relations or a friendly conversation with me say something derogatory about another race. Even though I’m white and 1/16 Cherokee, I get offended when KKK types speak.

I’ve encountered prejudice before. Once I was in the Deep South for business and an executive started the meeting off with a racial joke. Had I not been obligated to be there for my client, I would have caused a scene and left. I would later tell the guilty member of how unprofessional the joke was, which had no impact whatsoever. He called me a Yankee and went on with his business. Later on in the trip, I felt ashamed for even being associated with the man.

But the situation with the elderly man in the restaurant was different. I found myself disappointed as a child would be with a crappy Christmas present. He seemed so genuine and American that it pained me to fathom that he was just one person out of a generation who believed in such nonsense.

Racism exists. And although our country has made great strides in the past 40 years, people still judge others by the color of their skin. In Milwaukee, it seems like blacks and Hispanics are targeted by police. Recently, a Hispanic kid was shot by an officer. The family contests the kid had no gun. I wish I could say this is the first time this has happened, but it’s not. There are still businesses that have no minority employees, and some golf courses in the South still won’t allow blacks on the course.

With that being said, let me tell you about an organization that does not care about the color of your skin or religious belief. It’s called the military. In the Army, you do not see the same racial problems. Black, Hispanic, white, purple… it doesn’t matter. You’re a team of green.

I recall one squad I spent time with. The squad leader was Samoan. One team leader was white, the other was black. One soldier was Indian, another was Hispanic and the SAW gunner was of Middle Eastern descent. When it came time for patrols and raids, these soldiers didn’t care about one another’s ethnicity. They had a job to do; their lives depended on one another. In the end, they became brothers. They would share music and joke about each other’s mom.

In fact, the Army does not tolerate prejudice. If a soldier speaks a racial slur, he can lose rank and half his pay. If the behavior continues, he or she is Court Martialed.

The irony of it is that Americans have the freedom to think what they want to. So if a man wants to hate black people, he can, even if millions of African Americans have fought for his rights.

Maybe one day racism will not exist. Maybe the bigots will realize the errors in their ways. While I hope this happens, I doubt true equality will ever be achieved in this country… because the hateful thinking is passed on from generation to generation. But one thing is for sure… just as my father taught me, I will teach my children not to judge another by the color of skin. After all, America is about diversity and opportunity, not hate.

My very first raid story

TALL AFAR, Iraq – In a dilapidated two-story building on the outskirts of Tall Afar, the loud bass and electrical guitar of heavy metal music echoes off the faded white walls. On this chilly April night, Soldiers pace up and down the stairs and hallways, pushing each other like football players just minutes before they walk onto the field. Only this isn’t a game, and the opponent isn’t a rival they will shake hands with afterwards.

Under a full moon, superstitions and nerves run high as the infantrymen prepare to seek and possibly destroy their opponent. The goal of their mission is to detain people suspected of leading attacks against Coalition forces.

“This is how we get pumped up for a major mission. I’m a little worried though, because I didn’t listen to Pantera like I normally do,” jokingly says Sgt. Ryan Griffin, a team leader for 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, Company C, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team).

Music and superstitions aside, Griffin and his fellow squad members rehearse until they are absolutely ready for the mission. They practice scaling a wall similar to what they might encounter on the battlefield, moving in teams, just like they will in a few short hours.
Their preparation is necessary to complete the 10-hour, two-phase raid. Company C’s 2nd Platoon (Reapers) has the largest responsibility with four objectives.

The mission

Softly purring and making less noise than the average motor vehicle, Company C Strykers transport Soldiers to the first objective in Tall Afar. Inside the vehicle, the Soldiers mentally prepare for their individual responsibilities. The only sounds are radio transmissions and Soldiers slapping magazines into their M4s.

The Stryker ramp drops and Soldiers of Reaper Platoon’s 1st Squad swiftly move into position.

They reach the target house within 45 seconds and immediately establish 360-degree security. As expected a 12-foot-high wall stands in the way, but as rehearsed, the Soldiers breach it, blow open a door and move into the house. Inside is an Iraqi family stunned by the arrival of Coalition forces.

“Do you have weapons,” Reaper Platoon’s Spc. Enrique Murillo asks an older man who has two forms of identification and is suspected of leading attacks against Coalition forces. After questioning the man, the Soldiers confirm he is the suspect they are searching for.

Meanwhile, a team searches each 10-foot by 10-foot room in the house. Blankets are piled everywhere in three of the rooms and broken flour bags lay on the green-stained concrete floor in the other room.

“I have to search everything,” says Sgt. Corey Reeves as he turns over a blanket and finds a baby underneath the blanket pile.

The Soldiers ask why the baby is hidden under a blanket as they ensure that the infant is returned to his mother.

“We are here to make people accountable for their terrorist acts, not inflict harm on families,” says 1st Lt. Leo Flor, Reaper Platoon leader.

The detained man is placed in a Stryker and later moved to a detainee camp for further questioning. Reaper Platoon moves on to the next objective.

Just like the move through Tall Afar, the virtually silent movement to the second objective 45 minutes away in Barzone is uneventful. This time, however, the Soldiers inside the vehicle talk.

“It’s always such an adrenaline rush not knowing what’s on the other side of the door, and the look on the guy’s face when he knew he was caught was priceless,” Staff Sgt. Joshua Watson says about capturing the previous suspect. “When we get a bad guy like that, it’s a great feeling because we know we’ve done our job.”

Ten minutes before they reach the objective of phase two, the silence settles over each man.

When they emerge from the back of the Stryker in front of the target house, each has his battle face in place. In drill team precision, the Soldiers move into position. With the rest of their squad as back up, the breach team moves into the house.

“Do you have any weapons,” Griffin asks the suspected targets. The response is no but the search yields an unlicensed AK-47 in one large room and underneath an uneven bed lying on concrete blocks, three magazines.

The Soldiers detain the two individuals, both of whom are suspected of attacking Iraqi government officials and Coalition forces. They move the suspects to the detainment area with 17 other individuals detained by Company C.

The final move of the night is back to the closest thing to home these Soldiers have in Iraq. The sun is shining brightly by the time they return to their home base.

Although tired and already talking about how long they’re going to sleep, Reaper Platoon’s 1st squad gathers around the Stryker vehicles to reflect on the night’s activities, proud that once again it’s mission accomplished.

“Everyone did a great job last night; I mean, this morning,” Watson says with a laugh. “Get some rest, we’ve got patrols tomorrow.”

Twenty-four hours later, a Pantera CD is placed into a stereo and these infantrymen are ready to start all over again.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

New Blog that delivers

It seems like everybody and their dog has a blog. Some are really bad; some are pretty good. But most get frustrated when nobody comments on their pages of writing. So with that being said, I’d like to direct you to a blog of a fellow Okie and former Public Affairs soldier. A frequent commenter on this site, Word Girl recently posted 100 things about herself. I don’t think I could do that. Let’s give her some support… she’s an excellent writer.

Vietnam vs. Iraq

I grew up watching Vietnam movies. As a kid, I wanted to wear green fatigues, walk through a jungle and carry an M60. Instead, I get a khaki uniform, a desert and an M16. I always envisioned war in the jungle and so did John Goodman’s character in the Big Lebowsky… “Whereas what we have here? A bunch of fig-eaters wearing towels on their heads, trying to find reverse in a Soviet tank. This is not a worthy adversary,” he said referring to Desert Storm. Of course, Goodman’s character was a Vietnam vet and proudly disputed any war being tougher.

While this character was fiction and played a large role in one of the great 1990’s comedy, there is some true resentment behind his words. Almost all Vietnam vets I talk to speak of their war as the war. And rightly so, they should be very proud of their service. They served a country that was divided, with half hating the men in uniform. And the difficulties they endured from the random jungle disease to ambushes to being captured by a skilled enemy. Vietnam vets deserve recognition, and they are the first to thank soldiers returning home.

Occasionally, I run into this Vietnam vet at the VA, who loves to compare Iraq to Vietnam.

“Vietnam ain’t no Iraq. Shit, we had 50 times the casualties.”

He’s right. In Vietnam, there were almost 60,000 deaths. Currently, 1,872 servicemen have been killed in Iraq.

From a tactical standpoint, the two wars are completely different though. G.I.s in Vietnam fought an army plus random guerillas. Except for the initial ground war, all we fight are guerillas. And in Vietnam, the enemy would sustain a fight. In Iraq, the enemy plants a bomb and runs. In both wars, soldiers rebuilt schools and hospitals, and both enemies are / were extremely difficult.

However, the one thing that sticks out more than anything about these two wars is the equipment. While there have been numerous reports about lack of equipment in Iraq, make no doubt about it, we still have the best equipment in all the land. We have body armor that will stop an AK round. Imagine if our soldiers had this in Vietnam. How many lives would have been saved? We have up-armored hummers that stop bullets, RPGs and shrapnel. And we have robots that search for bombs. Not to mention, today’s aerial support and GPS can pinpoint a target whereas in Vietnam, a lieutenant directed artillery basically off a map and compass… increasing chances for friendly fire.

Plus, today’s medical technology and expertise has saved countless lives on the battlefield. In two years, there have been 14,000 injured in Iraq, half of those returned to duty within 72 hours. That’s credit to the Army Medical Corps.

My point is this, today’s soldier is equipped with the absolute best. There’s no telling how many lives have been saved. But one thing is for sure, you cannot compare Vietnam to Iraq from a casualty standpoint. They are two different wars. But I understand that the major comparisons are more for political reasons. And that’s another story… One that is out of the soldier’s hands.

Monday, August 22, 2005


Sports have a way of calming our society. In times of stress, an avid sports fan can get lost in the baseball statistics in the agate of his morning paper. In times of tragedy, we can take solace in the National Anthem before ball games.

One of my fondest memories of our country reuniting after Sept. 11 was seeing an American flag the size of a football field before kickoff. As a high school kid, I remember watching Oklahoma City’s AAA team and before the game, they held a moment of silence for the victims of the OKC bombing.

I believe that sports are one of the things that make our country so great. Perhaps it’s watching two teams or individuals vying to see who is best. But I like to think it’s because of the hard work before the game. And in no other entertainment venue, do you hear the National Anthem. Can you imagine anything remotely Patriotic before a movie begins?

I never feel more American than I do before a baseball game, when gentlemen take their hats off and look at Old Glory. Even as a kid, I never wanted to be late for a game because I wanted to hear those beautiful words… “Oh say can you see…”

Sports are such a large part of our society that I believe we’d be lost without them.

This line of thinking came about after I read this article about basketball coaches traveling to Kuwait to put on a clinic. It's called Operation Hardwood, an eight team tournament made up of the top basketball players stationed in Kuwait. Each team will be comprised of 13 players and coached by the best.

My hat is off to these guys. For one, it takes guts. And two, they are showing support to the men and women in uniform. And these aren’t your run-of-the mill coaches either. Each has led a team to the Big Dance, and a couple have been to the Final Four. For you non-NCAA basketball watchers, this would be the equivalent of the H&R Block CEO going to Kuwait to give classes on taxes.

Reading about this event did my heart some good… I love sports… they’ve always been there when America needed them.

Friday, August 19, 2005

The son of Sammy; the fight for respect

Sammy is one of my best friends. He served with me in Iraq and in this difficult environment, we shared laughs, close calls and toilet paper. Sammy has this infectious laugh that always brightened the dullest moments. In many ways, he was my refuge.

In Iraq, he turned 40, missed his children’s birthdays and injured his ankle on a PT run. Before we left, his son joined the Wisconsin Guard. And now his son is deployed to the Middle East. Sammy Jr. will provide security for convoys, one of the more dangerous missions. Sammy is no longer on the battlefield, but he will now watch the news more closely and cringe at every “U.S. soldier killed” headline.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve followed the news and read about friends being killed. It’s much more difficult to observe the progress from home than it is to witness the carnage. I don’t know why; it just is. And now that Sammy Jr. is crossing the border, my heart hopes he returns unscathed. But I know he will return a man… a man that makes his father proud. I also find myself becoming more and more concerned.

As a soldier, it’s not our job to question the politics behind the conflict. It’s our job to execute. But since I’ve been home, I’ve grown tired of the “Iraq debate” to the point that part of me wishes the war would end and my friends could return home. While I know this is not realistic, I still wonder how much of an impact we are really making on the U.S.-proclaimed “War on Terror.” As our country grows tired of the war, my heart simply aches. With every death, I find myself questioning why.

The reason we went to Iraq was for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Then, it was freeing the Iraqi people. Then, it was fighting the terrorists in Iraq rather than America. I struggle with stomaching the politics behind the war, but I am enamored by the results of our military.

We have built schools, trained security forces and destroyed the hopes of thousands of evil doers, while our fatalities continue to increase. I just wonder when the end will be. Every day, I pray that the killing of Americans will stop, and I hope our society recognizes the trials the soldiers and family go through.

Politics aside, I am most frustrated with the anti-war protesters. I do not believe many of them recognize the sacrifice our soldiers and families make. They march throughout our cities, criticizing our President, chanting “Support our troops; bring them home.” Then, they question the morality of our soldiers after incidents like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. However, I do respect Cindy Sheehan and her views. After all, the war has taken away her precious son. And I guess this is where my frustrations come from… I have lost so many friends. But at the same time, 20 years from now, when I meet with the children of my fallen friends, I do not want to tell them that their father died for oil or for politics. Rather, I will tell them their father fought for their freedom, for all Americans.

I am young and at times naïve to the mood of this country. However, I wonder how close this conflict is coming to Vietnam. It seems like protests are becoming more malicious while servicemen continue to die.

And then, I see another 18-year-old go off to war. A son of a very close friend. While proud of his commitment for the United States, I pray for Sammy Jr.’s safety… and that he may return to a country that supports him. A country that ignores the politics behind Iraq and recognizes the sacrifices of the American soldier.

In the Kurdish areas of Iraq the landscape is much different. The area is loaded with mountains and crystal-clear waters. This is a water fall in a suburb of Irbil. At the moment of this photo, I wore no body armor. In addition to the area's beauty, it's also very secure. The Kurds have always been a trusted ally. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Meet Spc. Jose L. Ruiz, a husky kid from New York, who was killed Monday during a driveby. Today, as you read your news, you might see a mention of Ruiz at the bottom of the page. But let me tell you, he was a great soldier. He belonged to the same squad as T & Mitts, who were killed in November. My prayers are with the Ruiz family... your shy teddy bear will always be remembered.
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

That's me on the right, giving instructions to the troops. This was our first day in the Middle East. We just landed in Kuwait. Lugging that much equipment around is a huge pain in the butt. Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Cabin Quest

Since I made the decision to quit my job and dedicate every second to the completion of my novel, I’ve been searching for a quiet cabin somewhere in the woods of Wisconsin or Minnesota. While there are slews of property overlooking pristine lakes, I have not found the “one” that fits my price range. First of all, most cabins are rented by the day or week… nobody wants to stay in these things for months at a time. My goal is to watch the leaves turn and hear the birds chirp, at an affordable price, while I write away. I’ve been quoted everything from $4400 to $1200 a month.

When I ask if they give military discounts, the answer is no or “we’ll take off a day or two, bringing the total to … let’s see here … $3300.” This is where I begin to have a mild heart attack. When I talk to a friend of a friend type, I run into… “well, I’d love to help you out, but we like to go up there on the weekends.”

In two weeks, my lease runs out and I’ll either be living out of my car, writing in a cabin or back to sleeping on couches of friend’s houses. The fact of the matter is I really want to get away and enjoy nature. All my friends live in the city, and to be honest, I am due for a change of scenery. I love Milwaukee, but I’m tired of waking up at night because of the sounds of beer bottles breaking against concrete. I need some good old country life for awhile, especially while I write. But it’s not easy finding that perfect cabin. I and my detailed squad of cabin finders will keep looking, though, because that’s what we do… we don’t give up.

As a photographer, you're always looking for the perfect shot. Today, I was viewing my Iraq photos and came across this Mosque in Qayarrah, I totally forgot I had taken this, but remember spending an hour waiting for the sun to set for the perfect shot. I was pretty happy with the outcome. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, August 13, 2005

One year and still going


It's been a year since I started this blog. It's been fun. Here's a rundown...

160 posts
200,000 hits
689 emails
40 hate emails from anti-war types or extreme Islamic folks
1 naked picture emailed to me
37 emails from reporters
15 emails from literary agents and movie producers
42 comments and emails begging me to stop wearing Brut

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Have I turned a corner?

The nightmares continue, only now I cannot remember them. This morning, around 4:30, I awoke sweating like an overworked horse and screamed “no.” The only thing I could recall from the dream was a loud noise, so I searched my apartment to see if any hanging objects fell. Everything was intact. Then, I watched some Sports Center, scratched myself a few times and went back to bed.

What’s different now than before is the nightmares don’t bother me as much. Just as my counselor said, I can control the outcomes. And I wonder if this is why I cannot remember the dreams…. Because in the dreams, I’m actually kicking everybody’s ass and subconsciously I don’t want to get a big ego. Yeah, that’s it.

For real though, I’ve learned to deal with a lot of the issues that overwhelmed me before. Let me give you an example… idiots don’t bother me as much. I recently took a boat trip with a good friend of mine and on board was this anti-war, anti-milk, anti-everything-American lady who debated me on the Iraq war. When her reasons turned to personal insult, I felt no urge to throw her off the boat nor did I throw in her face that the reason she can have opinions is because of the American soldier fighting for her freedom. Rather, I felt sorry for her. In fact, I really think I’ve turned a corner.

Take my job for example. I love the people I work with, but my heart was no longer in the game. Therefore, I quit. My last day is tomorrow and while it will be very difficult to say goodbye to my many friends, everybody understands my reasons for leaving.

I plan to spend the next two months pounding out the final pages of my book. That’s right, I will be a jobless writer… but I’m pretty happy about it. And soon, I’ll be a published author… and everybody likes a published author.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005



I firmly believe that no occupation exemplifies freedom more than journalism. Of course, the mainstream media has not exactly portrayed the best image. But you cannot argue the premise and purity of journalism. If we didn’t have watchdogs hounding our politicians, stalking our sports stars and celebrities, and holding our military accountable, there’s no telling what kind of country we would have. With that being said, I wish they would report positive news occasionally.

My job in Iraq afforded me the opportunity to work with dozens of media, many of whom were just normal people without a chip on their shoulder. There were also the reporters who were like used car salesmen. I recall a question asked by a Chicago Tribune reporter to an Illinois soldier.

“Wouldn’t you rather be at home watching the Cubs play?”

Of course, he was just baiting the soldier to say something negative. Luckily, the soldier didn’t fall for it. But for the most part, I found reporters to be honest and caring. After all, they were away from home, too, and were subject to the same dangers as us… they just had to report on it.

Yesterday, which was my birthday by the way, a Gannet News Reporter was injured in an attack. He tells his side of the story, at least, what he can recall.

Journalists are good people. Their product is always under a lot of scrutiny, but they continue providing our country a vital resource.