In Iraq for 365

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

Monday, September 12, 2005

I'll never forget

The two duffle bags were filled with my equipment collection of nine years. Cold weather mittens. Goggles. Kevlar. Canteens, canteen cups and canteen covers. Pistol belt. First aid kit. It was all there. Except for a camel back that was lost in Iraq.

Any equipment not turned in, even after a decade of service, the soldier is responsible for. I signed a statement of charges for a little over $30 for the item and I was done. I wrote a typical military memo, dry and free of inspirational thought, indicating my intentions of getting out.

I wanted to write that I planned to grow my hair to the length of my butt and not shave for two years, but I didn’t. I wanted to say that my final day of Army service was one of the happiest days of my life, but I didn’t. I wanted to thank the Army for losing my medical records three separate times, causing me to receive more vaccinations than a Rabies patient, but I didn’t. I wanted to write about how the Army’s health insurance, TriCare, failed to pay for multiple bills it was responsible for while I was hospitalized with Lyme disease, leaving my credit rating a wreck, but I didn’t. I wanted to ask how some officers ever received promotions while several more-deserving candidates were passed up because they were not good-old boys, but I didn’t. I wanted to demand an answer for why we need to fill out 25 pieces of paperwork to use a toilet in a government building, but I didn’t.

See, I don’t measure my years of service by the Army’s inadequacies or the people I want to forget. Rather, I will remember the important moments.

I’ll never forget the 25-mile road march in basic training. My feet were raw and my arms, back and thighs were sore as sore can be. After the march, we turned Blue, meaning we received the infantry’s coveted Blue Cord. I felt like a man that day.

I’ll never forget my first drill in Wisconsin. The majority of the unit was women. Being an infantryman transferring to a public affairs unit, I felt out of place and in the past harbored ill feelings toward female soldiers. But the females made me feel comfortable and the commander encouraged my creativity. I reenlisted after one year of service in Wisconsin.

I’ll never forget the day I received the “call.” It was Valentines Day, 2003. We were placed on alert and the only girls I called on this day of love were those I called soldiers.

I’ll never forget the time I spent in the hospital. My most frequent visitors were fellow soldiers.

I’ll never forget when we boarded the plane to leave the U.S. Joe and I placed towels on our heads and we laughed the flight away.

I’ll never forget the smell of my first patrol. The mixture of sewage and burning trash is a unique smell.

I’ll never forget our first night in NCO alley, where we learned to leave the war behind and just laugh. We learned the only way we can get through Iraq is by leaning on one another. By laughing more than crying.

I’ll never forget meeting Sergeant Mitts. His smile, his soft-spoken words and his heart impacted me in unmatched ways. At his memorial, I didn’t cry. I smiled in his memory.

I’ll never forget the day Samir bought me a vase from the Mosul market. He tried for a week to find one nice enough for my mother. “For you, sergeant, only the best.” The man made me laugh more than anybody and to this day, I can’t stop thinking about him.

I’ll never forget hearing the national anthem as we walked off the plane. Shaking hands with politicians and seeing American soil for the first time.

I’ll never forget the battle within my mind with readjusting. The nightmares. Fears. And how I overcame them all without medications or drinking. How it was tough and will continue to be a challenge, but I got through it and will continue to do so with the help of special people.

I’ll never forget my last drill. We had two new soldiers, both of whom wanted me to stay in.

“You can’t leave, man, you’re so funny.”

I’ll never forget Sammy’s face as I walked down the long hallway to our office for the last time. Tears filled his eyes as if he were at a funeral. He and I are close.

I’ll never forget opening my car door on the last day and I saw Sammy walking toward me.

“Dude, are you stalking me?”

“No, I got to go across the street to turn in some paperwork.”

I’ll never forget how red his eyes were. They were visible even under his thick magnifying glasses.

I’ll never forget my last salute as a soldier. Near my car in the Wisconsin Guard headquarters, I snapped to attention, looked in the direction of Staff Sgt. Brian P. Jopek, aka Sammy, raised my right hand, touching the brim of my soft cover and simply said “take care, brother.” He didn’t respond and just kept walking. See, NCOs don’t salute NCOs. Technically, you’re only supposed to salute officers and in ceremonies. But out of respect, I was saluting Sammy. “Dude, I’m serious. I’m saluting you.” He returned the salute and held it. “Take care, Sammy. I love you man.” He didn’t respond. “Hey, aren’t you going to say something?” “The last time I said something like that, you called me a faggot.” “I was joking then; I’m serious now.” “OK, I love you too.” He dropped his salute and proceeded on. As he left, I yelled “faggot. I can’t believe you said you love a man.”

I’ll never forget Sammy’s laugh. After all the ridicule I’ve given him over the years, including my in-jest fagot remark, he still laughs at every stupid thing I do. It was this laugh that got the gang in NCO Alley through many tough times.

I’ll never forget my military career. Through all the bad, there was plenty of good. And more laughs than on Comedy Central.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Bumper sticker, seafood and chicken

I am currently hanging out with Sammy and the rest of my cohorts for the last time as a Wisconsin Guard soldier. Tomorrow, I will turn my equipment in and say goodbye to the life of uniform. Yesterday, my soldiers bought me dinner at a very nice restaurant in Madison. I ate something I can’t pronounce and washed it down with the house Merlot.

Today, I met with our new commander, whom I respect immensely. You may recall seeing his name in the news. He adopted an Iraqi child who suffers from cerebral palsy. His efforts to adopt is new Iraqi son was well covered by the media. Here’s a Journal Sentinel article. (you might have to register to read).

After drill, Sammy and I left to grab some chow. On the way, we came across a pizza delivery vehicle with this bumper sticker: “How many Iraqi children per gallon do you get for your SUV?” Immediately outraged, Sammy and I called the pizza place demanding to speak with the manager. I asked the man if he found it appropriate to have such messages affiliated with his fine establishment. He said no, but to be honest, he didn’t sound too sincere.

I topped the night off with a Peruvian meal that was loaded with seafood. After eating half the mountain of chow, I realized I wasn’t looking at the food I was shoveling into my mouth. At first look, it appeared I was eating uncooked chicken.

“Ma’am is this chicken?”

“No. It’s fish.”

I felt like a moron, and ate it anyway.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Iraqi soldiers donate money for Katrina victims

This really touches my heart. For those of you who don't believe the Iraqis value our presence, read this article.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

News article

Below is a snippet of an article on milbloggers in the Columbia Journalism Review. I and the author of MY WAR are featured...

Friday, September 02, 2005

Thoughts on the disaster



Australia - eight million dollars.
France - emergency supplies, including tents, blankets, cooking equipment and camp-beds.
Britain - 500,000 military (meals) rations.
Germany - 25 tons of food.
Italy - 15,000 First Aid Kits, along with infant food, blankets, pumps, water-purifying devices and inflatable rafts.
Kuwait - 500 million dollars in oil products.
Qatar - 100 million dollars.
Canada - thousands of camp-beds, blankets and medical supplies. A Canadian Coast Guard ship is bringing 1,000 troops.
Afghanistan (that's right, Afghanistan) - 100,000 dollars.
Indonesia (one of the countries hit by the Tsunami) - 40 medical doctors.
Korea - 30 million dollars.
Norway - 1.6 million dollars.
Sri Lanka (one of the countries hit by the Tsunami) - 25,000 dollars.
China - five million dollars.
Cuba - doctors, 25 tons of medicine and emergency supplies.
Netherlands (Holland) - Inspectors/Engineers to inspect the levies (go figure).
Israel - sending doctors and military support.
Venezuela - doctors, oil products (at cost), and emergency supplies.
Japan - an emergency rescue team.
India - five million dollars, essential medicines and water purification systems.
The Philippines - a 25-member team of aid workers (doctors, nurses, sanitary engineers).
Mexico - 15 tons of water, food and medicine.
Iran has offered to send aid.
The UN is offering their coordination of the international relief. (no, I didn't get that from Scrappleface).

It’s been said a million times already, but it’s true: tragedy brings out the best in people, and in New Orleans, for some people, the worst.

After I saw the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I thought for sure America would join hands and bail out New Orleans and Mississippi just as we have done in Florida after hurricanes, Oklahoma after the bombing and New York after 9/11. And for the most part, this is true. Thus far, Americans have donated $24 million to Red Cross and the Salvation Army. But the most-covered events have been the lootings and shootings.

First off, I can understand taking water and food from grocery stores. But why DVD players and T.V.s? Even if a looter gets away with stealing a television where do they plan on plugging it in? There’s no power in the city! In addition, hundreds of guns have been stolen. And every state in the Union has sent National Guard units to Louisiana for security, not disaster relief purposes. A helicopter was shot at while attempting to load refuges and a police officer and National Guard soldier have been shot. I just don’t get it… why would these people attack the very Americans trying to save them?

Not for one second, however, do I lump all New Orleans residents in with these criminals. My heart goes out to the citizens who lost loved ones and homes. Three months from now, I’m sure we’ll be mesmerized by the fatality numbers and damage. The numbers will more than likely double 9/11. To friends and family of the lost and dead, words will never be able to fill the void. But take solace in knowing that your government and fellow man are doing everything to restore your lands.

Now, we look at rebuilding the broken. I’m no engineer, but anybody with half a brain can look at the damaged infrastructure and know that this will be harder than even rebuilding Iraq. However, I have no doubt that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the countless government and private engineers will do everything in their power to fix Mississippi and Louisiana. The question becomes, though, should we pump all this money into the areas when it can just happen again. I’m of the opinion that New Orleans is too valuable of a city to not repair to what it once was. From economic standpoint, we need the ports in the city to maintain our international marketplace in grain and oil exports. Everybody knows of the oil situation, but not many people understand the wheat, soybean and corn problem. Nearly one quarter of all grains are shipped through New Orleans and now these ports and grain elevators are ruined. If we do not quickly repair these shipping areas, we will not only suffer high gas prices, but the food prices will skyrocket. Another commodity that has been impacted is sugar. Louisiana was the country’s top sugar beet producer. If you put sugar in your tea or coffee, it probably came from Louisiana. Now that this American sugar is no longer available, we will have to import almost all of it from Asian countries, who produce it from sugar canes, which is much more expensive than beets. My rebuilding suggestion is we repair the damaged infrastructure that has the most economic implications on our country first than we concentrate on the homes and businesses. Yes, this may seem to be a crude statement, but we can house the displaced persons in other cities. We cannot ship a million tons of grain from another port that is already shipping a million tons. The facilities are not in place to pick up the slack from the New Orleans ports.

Then, there’s the security situation. For whatever reason, many Louisiana residents have taken arms against their own people. There is no reason for this; they are just causing more problems and slowing down the rebuilding process. But this is just a minor security problem. My biggest fear is that we are vulnerable for a major terrorist attack. With most of our security and rescue personnel focused on New Orleans, I have no doubt that terrorist cells are planning an attack. I do not mean to scare people, but every war fighter knows that the best time to attack is when your enemy is down and or distracted. So what can you do as a citizen? Well, my suggestion is to keep your eyes peeled for unattended bags in crowded areas. If you see one, report it to security immediately. If you’re in a downtown area, watch out for parked cars close to buildings. Statistically car bombers use rundown vehicles, so keep that in mind… even a terrorist doesn’t want to blow up a brand-new Mercedes. My guess is they will not attack a Los Angeles or New York, but a medium sized city that is probably not as prepared like a Louisville or Tulsa. This goes without saying, but stay alert; it just might save your life. Again, I do not mean to strike fear in you, but we have to be realistic here, it is a very possible scenario.

My hat is off to the media. While they have received tons and tons of criticism for their Iraq coverage, they have been extraordinary in covering this tragedy. They are telling both sides of the story and risking their lives in doing so. They are filming looters and rescue attempts in a tasteful manner. While everybody knows that there are bodies floating in the flooded waters, I have not seen a bit of footage of the dead. That is a media director decision, and I applaud their professionalism… they have not formed their own opinions and let the videos, photographs and interviews tell the story. Yesterday, I heard a general say that they cannot get to certain areas. My first thought was how are the media able to get everywhere, but not our military.

If you have not donated money or time, please do so. We are Americans. We take care of our own. And we will get through this tragedy.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

To the cabin I go

The posts will be much more infrequent, not that I've ever really reached a level of consistency.

At any rate, thank you all for your support. With a full beard and water awaiting, I will now travel to a beautiful cabin sitting on a crystal clear lake. I do hope to provide updates occasionally, but where I'm going, there's not even a telephone pole nearby. However, I will make it a priority to write at least one post a week until the book is completed. I'll find a library or a hotel with free wireless or something, because I have fantasy football coming up.

Thanks again for all your support. You have given me the courage to chase a dream I've had since I was six.

On another note, I found this article interesting. It states relatives and friends of soldiers in Iraq support the war. Imagine that.