Tag Archives: Iraq

Something to Think/Write About

2015-09-10 09.27.32Last night when it was time to read stories before bed, my daughter found a book long hidden in our collection.  I had gone downstairs to tuck her in and when I saw it at the top of her stack, I said “Oh, you found ‘The Librarian of Basra’.  Did you like it?”

She answered, “I loved it!  I am feeling so many emotions from this book right now!”  Wow.  I had never seen her respond to a book like this before. She asked many questions about it, so I promised to find out as much as possible for her about the librarian of Basra.

I hadn’t looked at this book in a long time.  It was discovered in the most unexpected of places, a scratch and dent store in Independence, Missouri.  I was cruising the book section, not really looking for anything at all, and then I found this book.  I stood in the store and read it, not quite believing the great fortune I’d stumbled upon.  Reading the story made me feel connected once again to people I had known and lost — friends on the other side of the world who I never would have met had it not been for a war.  People who did nothing to deserve the wrath that had been raining down on them.

The story is written and illustrated by American author Jeanette Winter, known for creating vibrant true tales about real life heroes in a way that is palatable for younger audiences. This story is about Alia Muhammad Baqer, the chief librarian in Basra, forced to give up her building and livelihood when the governor decides to use it as his new headquarters. Baqer’s courage and tenacity saves around 30,000 rare and valuable books from destruction when the library burns to the ground during the early days of the Iraq war.  Although she cannot save every book, Baqer’s efforts prevent the entire collection from being lost and she becomes a local hero.  At great risk of her own safety, Baqer chooses to rescue knowledge, because as a librarian, she knows how intrinsic books are to the survival of her culture.

American cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty, also depicts Baqer’s story in a graphic black and white comic book format, also child-friendly.  In the Amazon.com reviews section of Stamaty’s book, a reviewer by the name of Judy K Polhemus had this to say:  “As a girl, Alia had read about the Mongol invasion of Iraq and the burning of the Baghdad Library. She equates the burning of a library and its books with the destruction of the culture of her country. Burn a library and you burn a collective recorded memory.  Alia singlehandedly assumes the responsibility… She stuffs her purse and loads her arms under her shawl and walks out, loads her car, returns for another load.  City and military officials who now occupy the library, daring the enemy to bomb their library, pay her no heed.  She fills her car.

Night after night she comes home with a car full of books.  Her husband, bless him, unloads them into a closet, then guest room, then into other rooms.  (I’m a librarian and understand her distress and need to save the books!).  Then neighbors and friends, and those who hear about the effort, and then many other people help rescue the books.  The only books intentionally ignored are those about Saddam Hussein.”

Further research cemented my respect for Baqer, her courage, her passion for books, her legitimate concern that the destruction of the library would mean severe damage to civilization itself.  In Pam McAllister’s blog post Lawbreaking Librarians: A Legacy of Courage, Alia is the featured heroine who rescues a critical piece of her culture in the face of “the war against books”.  Not too difficult to imagine Baqer’s source of courage.  She is a book lover after all, and to her, books are the most important tools for building society.  Knowledge is power.

On women’s history site A Mighty Girl, Winter was asked in an interview how she made her stories, often about heroes in nearly impossible circumstances, accessible to young readers, and whether these stories are even historically valid to these readers.  Winter asserts that her works, especially ‘The Librarian of Basra’ depict stories in an “even-handed” manner, through strong, colorful graphics and easy to understand language, allowing young people to find meaning that they can comprehend.  Winter also states that despite the academic argument that children care little for history, it is possible to cultivate love of learning through “good, accurate story-telling”.

Illustration of Alia Baqer dreaming of peace and a new library, from Jeanette Winter's 'The Librarian of Basra'.

Illustration of Alia Baqer dreaming of peace and a new library, from Jeanette Winter’s ‘The Librarian of Basra’.

This morning I was well equipped with several sources to back up the story of the Librarian of Basra and give my daughter the information she wanted.  I know that she is a book lover like myself, and she also cares deeply for others, so she would find what my discoveries quite valuable.  We had a nice talk before school.  I showed her a photograph I found of Alia Baqer in 2013, on the tenth anniversary of her mission to save the books.  She is now an old woman, sitting at a desk, working with a large hard cover book.  She looks like she is happy and at peace.  This photograph made my daughter very happy.  It made me happy and sad.  It’s difficult to explain how books and stories can create common bonds from across the globe, but I hope that somehow, Alia Baqer can know that her story inspired a little girl in the United States to be a courageous person.

My daughter asked me about my experience in Iraq.  I showed her my collection of photographs — friends and places once visited and long since left behind.  I told her some of the stories of heroes I met there.  I told her why people were scared of Saddam Hussein, and why the bombs were falling on Basra when the librarian was trying to save all the books.  I explained to her why it is important to save knowledge and tell stories.  She gave me a hug and said “I love you Mom” when she left for school.  I looked at all my books and smiled.

~G

 

I wrote this post because I was so touched by my daughter’s interest in the story of Alia Baqer.  I have noticed that, as Ms. Winter asserts, children really are fascinated by history.  Effective tools, such as children’s books like ‘The Librarian of Basra’ and Mr. Stamaty’s true life comics, can help us teach important history lessons to younger generations.  More importantly, we as parents and educators also need to have conversations with children and answer their questions so that our history as people is not swept under the heavy, musty rugs of time.  

 

Links for more information about the librarian of Basra:

Iraqi Librarian Saved 30,000 Books During Invasion

Photo of the Librarian of Basra

Lawbreaking Librarians: A Legacy of Courage

Too Soon or Censorship?

Harcourt Books Interview with Jeanette Winter

 

Blessed 4th of July

Last week I had the honor of meeting with photographer and fellow veteran Stacy Pearsall at the Junction City USAA for a portrait session through her Veterans Portrait Project. It was an incredible experience. Persall, an Air Force veteran, is an energetic woman with eyes that reflect  a kind heart. She guided me onto the stool and helped me find a comfortable pose. Often shy in front of the camera, I end up looking stiff and imperious, so she asked questions about my tour of duty while placing my hands in a natural positions and turning me toward the camera.

 

Photo credits: Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project.  I retain no rights.

Photo credits: Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project. I retain no rights.

She asked one of those typical questions that I love to hear — so, deployment/family?  And I blurted “Oh, going to war is great practice for raising a family.  Dealing with children is similar to dealing with terrorists, and vice versa!” and her lighting assistant gave a belly laugh.  After that I felt more at ease and tried to charm the camera.  It was a fun session, and having my portrait taken this way was extremely special.  I often don’t give myself credit for my work in Iraq; I step back and let better veterans, more deserving veterans, take credit.  And I’m okay with that.  But on this day, it was about me, and it was nice.

Stacy took several silly photos of me with my kids, and then gave me a big hug.  The paperwork to fill out — so the pictures would be sent to me — included a question about what being a veteran meant to me.  I wrote ‘continued support and service to those in the military’.  I love the photos I received.  The images are perfect.  They show a person who isn’t a soldier anymore, but who wants to continue to serve.  And someday I will have them enlarged and framed for each of the kids, not to glorify the fact that I was  on the battlefield, but to convey a message that even though war must split up families, it doesn’t change the fact that love remains.

Have a blessed 4th of July.

 

Please take time to look at these images of the men and women who have served.

http://stacypearsall.photoshelter.com

 

A Day in the Life: Surveyors at BIAP

Me at Breaktime

On a survey mission, 2003.

” A 51 Tango is a hell of a soldier…!” was part of a cadence we sang at survey school in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  And it’s true.  51 Tangos are a unique breed of perceptive, eccentric, innovative soldiers who must be kept busy or else we will mastermind elaborate pranks to terrorize each other.  Luckily we were busy with many survey projects during OIF 1!  Sadly, I do not have detailed notes about the projects from my deployment, but I remember enough to piece together the image of a typical day for a surveyor at BIAP.  When my company arrived in the summer of 2003, my survey team of 3 was absorbed by the Battalion’s much larger team, and we became part of a great adventure.

The Battalion surveyors were not the only Tangos we encountered; there were also surveyors at the Brigade and Group level (the corresponding levels of hierarchy for Army units).  More surveyors lived across the road in neighboring engineer battalions, so the potential for collaboration on engineering projects was tremendous.  We were only limited by the hours of the day, our own energy levels, and the parameters given by our OICs (Officers in Charge).  We were very lucky because the OICs had clear foresight of missions that needed to be accomplished and they trusted us to do our jobs without micromanaging us.  To that end, we were free to roam around BIAP unsupervised and explore areas in which most other soldiers had never set foot.

My beautiful picture

A surveyor on top of rubble in a bombed palace.

A typical day for a 51T would start after breakfast with a pow-wow in the Battalion survey office.  We would receive our mission for the day or simply plan to continue a mission that had not yet been completed.  After packing up necessary equipment and MREs (because we would likely be out all day) and checking the vehicle for operational readiness, it was time to load up and leave camp.  The early days of deployment included many topographic surveys and blueprint development for new camps, roads and such.  Surveying is tedious work under often strenuous environmental conditions, so we welcomed distractions such as fields full of unexploded ordinance or bombed out palaces that demanded further exploration.  We took every opportunity to walk through the abandoned palaces, assessing the damage and puzzling over the immense luxury of the interiors and the bizarre murals painted on the walls.  Saddam with a mermaid?  Okay.

Lunch

Surveyors had the best view at lunch time: high up on a palace ledge!

Lunch breaks were an opportunity for adventure too.  At one remote camp we took a cool dip in a broken water bladder, which could no longer store water, but was a perfect mini swimming pool!  We packed our PT uniforms at the direction of our NCOIC and when lunch time came around we hopped into the “pool” to cool down and wash the day’s worth of grime off our arms and faces.  After we dried off it was back to work.

We also “crossed the wire” on occasion, or left the secure area of BIAP, and ventured out into what was sometimes referred to as the Wild West, to buy things other Tangos (who weren’t on the mission that day) had requested: cigarettes, soda, ice, even Black Market items.  This errand was usually run at the end of the survey mission, especially if we needed ice.  The kibosh was put on our errand running a few weeks into the deployment when it was deemed far too dangerous for soldiers to be crossing the wire and buying items from the roadside stands.  Before that happened, we could get funny cigarettes and even smoke apple flavored tobacco from hookahs with the Iraqi market people before heading back to camp!

Roadside stands selling all kinds of items outside the wire.

Roadside stands selling all kinds of items outside the wire.

KozakWe spent as much time as possible exploring, and we could brag that we stepped into palaces and abandoned buildings that most soldiers never set foot in.  We climbed over rubble heaps and perched on majestic window ledges to get the best views.  But survey missions weren’t all fun and games.  We worked very hard, standing in the unforgiving sun, sweat dripping into our underwear, shooting points and pounding stakes as fast as we could to prepare sites for the earth movers.  It wasn’t funny when the tripod refused to level and it was 120 degrees in the shade; then by the time we did get it leveled the Geodimeter experienced a malfunction wouldn’t work for the rest of the day.  Or there were days when we would go out to a site where we had smashed fingers pounding in a half mile of stakes for a new road only to discover that an equipment operator had run them all over because he thought that the stakes indicated, “that was where I was supposed to drive”.

Kracker in Hole2

Although we did have a few run-ins with equipment operators who did not understand our use of stakes, a few patient explanations (and a few screaming fits) set things straight and our rapport with the earth movers was quite copasetic.  Aside from traditional survey, we also squeezed in quality control of concrete at the BIAP airport on occasion.  This meant a rare treat: a visit to the gorgeous airport and a chance to work with Iraqi civilian engineers, both a challenge and a learning opportunity.  On top of all this we had the soils lab for our geotechnical team.  Surveyors who exhibited a particular interest in working with soils were given the opportunity to spend time in the lab testing soil characteristics, sometimes late into the night depending on the nature of the tests.  We collected a wide variety of soil from BIAP sample zones and ran as many different tests as we could in the lab to make determinations about the cantankerous soil underfoot.  Working in the soils lab gave us the chance to get dirtier than we had ever anticipated, and there were many spontaneous mud fights when nerves got a little frayed…

Me and 'Kraker Jack' trying to kill each other with mud.

Me and ‘Kraker Jack’ trying to kill each other with mud.

As the typical survey day drew to an end we would return to the office and drop off equipment, recharge batteries, do PMCS on the vehicle, and sit around to BS before dinner chow.  Conversation would take the same turns.  What did we miss about home?  Who were our significant others back home and what did we miss most about them?  What kind of food were we craving?  Who deserved the latest prank and what kind of prank should it be?  Did we have time to do a prank before dinner?  We passed around a cigarette or a bottle of soda before chow time, talked a little about nothing, and tried not to think about the fact that we were all just a bunch of scared kids in the desert.  Just a typical day for a team of surveyors, some 51 Tangos.  A 51 Tango is a hell of a solider…

Napping

It was a good day of surveying…

Copyright 2014.  All photographs are the property of Georgeann Van Delist and http://www.bloggingpioneer.com.  Use and/or duplication of any material from this site is strictly prohibited without express permission from the site owner and author.

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The World’s Greatest Cheeseburger

Lunch

Too bad our MREs don’t come with the promise “Have it Your Way”!

I still think about it from time to time, when I am craving something that is no longer possible, something that probably doesn’t even exist, something that I can never go back for.  It was the best cheeseburger I have ever tasted.  There wasn’t anything inherently special about it, and maybe it didn’t even taste that great.  But it was a cheeseburger in a combat zone, a very rare treasure, and that made it remarkable.

Soldiers would travel through dangerous territory, risk the wrath of IEDs, mortars and rockets, then stand in a slowly snaking line in the hot sun, sweating their asses off to shell out hard earned cash for a bag of greasy Nirvana from the indomitable Burger King vendors.  Why go to such lengths to eat a humble cheeseburger?  These Whoppers that were so challenging to procure created a momentary transcendent connection to favorite memories: high school dances, first dates, football games, family barbecues, college graduation parties, honeymoons, newborn babies.  They were a conduit to the memories of American life that we all craved but couldn’t have.  Before dining facilities had been constructed and supply lines had been formally established, Burger King had opened up in a tiny metal hut on BIAP and was selling burgers at an unbelievable rate to thousands of homesick soldiers.

One of my tent mates brought me a Burger King Whopper one day.  A supply and arms room clerk, she had to make daily runs to BIAP’s Supply Yard to check on shipments for our company.  Any trip away from the Engineer Village compound was an excuse to do a little shopping, exploring, and “dining out”, and when she returned, she handed me a wonderful smelling paper bag with little oil stains forming on the bottom.  I don’t remember if there was a specific reason why she brought back a cheeseburger for me.  Maybe she owed a favor because I had kept an eye on the supply tent while she was picking up supplies.  I suspect that she just wanted to do something nice for me, because that is the kind of person that she has always been, and I remember uttering surprise at the sight of a real Burger King Whopper.  It had been ages since I had eaten actual American food.  A cheeseburger in the Middle East!  What a concept!

After choking down lackluster food for months on end I had come face to face with what I will forever remember as the World’s Greatest Cheeseburger.  The bun had been toasted on a grill, the beef patty  (I hope it was beef) was tender, juicy, and a little salty, the cheese had melted perfectly and fused onto the patty, and there was the perfect amount of mayonnaise and ketchup to add sauciness to the Whopper.  I recall a small piece of onion as well — not too much and not too little, but just enough to enhance the flavor.  I don’t remember if the cheeseburger came with lettuce and tomato, but it would have surprised me if it did.  It was quite difficult to get fresh vegetables during OIF 1 and tomatoes and lettuce wouldn’t have traveled well back to camp, but I digress…

Once I had tasted that Whopper I became a bit obsessed with cheeseburgers but never had another like that first from the BIAP Burger King.  I went back once during my deployment, stood in line for two hours sweating profusely and questioning the rationality of it all, but when I finally got the burger it didn’t taste nearly as delicious as the first.  Cheeseburgers in the chow hall were a joke — overcooked, rubbery, tasteless hockey pucks on bland bread with boring accoutrements.  Nothing came close to that first Whopper.  It had ruined me for cheeseburgers!  It still ruins me.

I somehow ended up with a centerfold of a burger — yes, this is true.  No pictures of sexy men in my corner of the tent, but I did have pictures of food!  I often looked longingly at my sexy burger (so pathetic) and thought of the day that the yummy Whopper had been delivered into my astonished hands.  The World’s Greatest Cheeseburger was exceptional for two reasons.  I was so homesick that the novelty of classic American comfort food made me feel nostalgic as I slowly savored every last bite.  The fact that, as she stood in a very long line for a very long time in the horrid Baghdad sun, a friend made the decision to pass along a kindness to me in the form of a humble cheeseburger. That act of kindness has resonated through the years.

— G

To prove that I did not hallucinate my entire cheeseburger encounter, check out the links below!  The first is by a WordPress blogger who was also in Iraq during OIF 1 and who also experienced the wonder of the Whopper on BIAP.  I recommend this article for another veteran’s take on life at BIAP and the challenges of procuring Burger King.  Enjoy!

http://www.vice.com/read/welcome-to-bahgdads-very-own-hotel-california

http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iraq/saddam-iap.htm

Survey Notes from Badghdad

Dirty Deeds

After U.S. troops occupied Iraq, who do you suppose was instrumental in developing the infrastructure to support the camps and Forward Operating Bases?  It was the 51 Tango, the survey engineer!  Tangos surveyed timeworn sites to which no known maps existed, trod ground on which no previous American engineers had ever set foot, and created sense and order out of chaos so that camps, airstrips, helicopter pads, schools, clinics, roads, canals, and civilization itself could be built up and maintained I ran into my former Tango drill sergeant from Fort Leonard Wood while I was waiting to depart Kuwait, and being able to discuss real survey missions with him was incredible because he was simply the best role model a buck sergeant could ask for.  Now a Sergeant First Class with a large team, he proudly described what his surveyors had accomplished and affirmed his hopes for the Tango legacy in Iraq.  He also gave me a challenge: to be a pioneer in engineering by making improvements wherever I led my team to leave Iraq better than I had found it.  “That is what Tangos do; we are the vanguards of engineering and the ones who make projects possible.  Do something new and make me proud!”  A remnant of my old survey journal shows evidence that my team did indeed pioneer the engineer field with projects such as innovative topographic surveys of roads, the ground breaking of Camp Victory, courtesy of my National Guard unit and my survey team, and my personal pride and joy: the establishment of the first military soils testing laboratory in Iraq.

My beautiful picture

Establishing benchmarks on a survey expedition at BIAP.

13 – 19 July 2003

Tasks included:

  • Topographic survey of West BIAP Road (it will become a five lane road).
  • Survey for airfield and helicopter pad projects.
  • Quality control of asphalt and concrete work at various locations in roads and at Iraqi Airways site at the airport.
  • Escorting of civilians on and off BIAP.Kozak
  • Support tasks for HQ platoon.

Notes:  Have observed not to chastise Iraqis publically.  Compliment their work and then suggest how it can be improved.  Do not be surprised if they listen politely and then do the exact opposite of what you suggest.  Concrete on a slump test should be 4-6 inches to pass.  Smooth stones in concrete are a NO-GO!  Nothing should be mixed in with concrete (ie: concrete bags, plastic bags, debris, any foreign matter) as it will create voids and weaken the concrete.  Soil must be wetted cautiously as too much water will create a soup that must dry for several days before work can continue.  Iraqis do not understand this, and often do not heed our warning (see all above).  Spongy, soft spots in the dirt work mean that there is a pocket of wet, soupy soil underneath and this will cause problems in the future.  Iraqi engineers say “It’s good!  Cover with asphalt, it will make stronger!  Yes, the plastic bags good!  Make everything stronger!  Very good!”  They think that a strong surface will actually reinforce the weak soupy interior.  This is not true.

Silhouettes of soldiers and civilian workers on a road project.

Silhouettes of soldiers and civilian workers on a road project.

20-27 July 2003

Tasks included:

  • Continued topography of West BIAP Road.
  • Design work on camp shower pad.
  • Support tasks for HQ Platoon.

Notes:  We haven’t done any “real” surveying in a while!  Now there are plenty of projects.  Got a “new” laptop for the section, but the CD drive is out so it already needs to be serviced.

My Tripod

Leveling the tripod to start a survey project.

28 July – 05 Aug 2003

Tasks included:

  • Topographic survey of Battalion motor pool.
  • Support tasks for HQ Platoon
  • My surveyors were added to the guard duty roster with tasks to include guarding the BN TOC, roving guard, and guarding the West BIAP Wall.

Notes:  Am considering having weekly survey pow-wows to gauge my team’s ideas, opinions, desires for future missions, etc. and get an impression of how their morale is holding up.  I also want to ensure that they are getting the information that they need to complete their various missions.  Since attitude [of troops] reflects leadership, I’d like to see if there is more I can do to be a positive role model and leader here.

Kracker in Hole2

Collecting samples from layers of soil at a BIAP road site.

06-13 Aug 2003

Tasks included:

  • Finished topographic survey of intersection on West BIAP Road.
  • Found elevation points on intersection.
  • Finished drawing of intersection.
  • Started survey of Zone 5 and found previous boundary established by another engineer battalion using a GPS and Geodimeter to shoot boundary.
  • Established three corners and used previously established corner as fourth.
  • Provided the Platoon Sergeant for 2nd PLT with the elevations of Zone 5 for earth work.
  • Met with leadership of a neighboring battalion and discussed setting up a geotechnical facility on BIAP, then formed a team of four technicians with overseers from two different engineer battalions.

Notes:  Rough week, but all turned out fine.  We decided to have weekly AARs to discuss survey issues that we encounter through the week.  Daily supervised PMCS of our vehicle, known as X2, has been implemented since we use the vehicle constantly.

13-20 Aug 2003

Kracker in Lab

Running tests on soil in the laboratory.

Tasks included:

  • Setting up of the soils, asphalt, and concrete (geotechnical) testing facility at the old Military Intelligence compound.
  • Took soil samples from perimeter road and began first tests immediately.
  • Took inventory of soils set, noted shortages, and listed additional equipment needed for the lab.
  • Did a perimeter survey of Zone 4 for 2nd PLT Sergeant.

Notes:  Fun, fun, fun! I LOVE soils!!  We had a Tango meeting; all the Tangoes on BIAP got together to combine talents.  I did not know there were so many of us here at one time.

20-27 Aug 2003

Lab7

Lab equipment neatly organized on homemade shelves.

Tasks included:

  • Soil testing.
  • Took more samples along perimeter road.
  • Worked on getting AC, electricity, refrigerator, etc. hooked up.
  • Surveyed along perimeter road and replaced control points that had been knocked over (cussed out heavy equipment operators that we suspected).

Notes:  Red Phase guard duties included front gate guard duty, OP2, TOC duty, RTO.

27 Aug – 2 Sept 2003

Tasks included:

  • Surveyed along perimeter road to check control points.
  • Soil testing.
  • Traverse survey to tie perimeter road into paved road.

Notes:  I hate this place!

My beautiful picture

Taking an informal width measurement of a canal: “It’s as wide as I can stretch my legs!”

Survivor Kuwait: Camp New Jersey Edition

Photo not retouched -- this is the effect caused by a Kuwait sand storm!  My Rebel G camera survived!

Photo not retouched — this is the effect caused by a Kuwait sand storm!

After arriving in Kuwait we lived in an area named Camp New Jersey, out in the desert, miles from Kuwait City and anything else that resembled an advanced civilization.  The desert was so hot and arid that our mission most of the time was just day to day survival.  My Colin Powell autobiography fell apart on an extremely hot day when the glue in the spine disintegrated and the pages fluttered across the sand.  There was an argument about the actual temperature; some said that 135+ degrees registered on their temperature gauges and others said it was impossible.  All I knew was that I needed a new book.  The Kuwaitis were known to be more active in the nighttime and morning because temperatures were favorable during these hours.  We soldiers adopted this practice upon finding we also were more alert in temperatures such as 85 degrees at 2:00 a.m. rather than 115 degrees at high noon.  The rising sun also tended to bring a nasty wind that blew sand into our tents no matter how hard we tried to seal them.  It was quite common to find tiny sand dunes piled on our gear after sand storms had roared through the camp.

Getting settled into the big yellow tents at Camp New Jersey.

Getting settled into the big yellow tents at Camp New Jersey.

We were warned upon arrival that we would be sharing our space with some very inhospitable critters such as desert vipers, rats, camel spiders, lizards, and scorpions.  I only saw one large lizard and some terrifying thing that was accused of being a camel spider.  Whatever it was, it fearlessly chased a soldier screaming for his mother several yards before scuttling into a hole, apparently satisfied that it has established its territory.  To keep critters off my cot when I decided to sleep under the stars one night, I stacked three pallets outside my tent Princess and the Pea style.  I watched the stars all night while listening to The Band on my CD player.  For some reason, the constellations seemed closer and brighter in the Middle East.  Maybe it was just the time of year and the fact that we had no excessive street lamps or city lights to distract from the view.  Another night several of us scrambled onto the top of an abandoned tent like monkeys and had an outdoor slumber party.  We didn’t get much sleep but lying on top of the tent was remarkably more comfortable than trying to sleep on our foldout cots.

Our biggest worry wasn’t getting enough sleep or getting into scraps with local vermin, but rather the treks across the camp for daily luxuries like food, water, showers, phones, and anything else that couldn’t be easily found inside the sleeping tents.    There was an AT&T center located a short quarter mile jaunt through the searing sand, and if we could get calling cards that hadn’t expired the second we paid for them, we would try to make long, long, long distance calls home, at a “low!” rate of about 99 cents per minute.  We dreaded the phone center.  Here’s why.  There were some twenty tiny semi private plywood phone cubicles set up, and 85% of the time, in the middle of everyone’s personal, special conversations, the phones would all just go dead because of ‘commo blackouts’.  Commo or communications blackouts occurred for a variety of reasons, but in Kuwait, at the little AT&T center, it was almost always because we had too many people making calls and the system couldn’t handle the overload.   It was immensely frustrating to be in the middles of a conversation with a loved one and then hear a morose click, then the hum of dead space.  The worst insult was probably the phone cards though.  The scam AT&T was running was so unethical, and we couldn’t do anything about it except scream.  We would spend God only knows on prepaid phone cards and after activating them, AT&T would immediately bill down half the minutes as activation fees or some other bullshit.  Worse yet, the cards might already be “expired” upon purchase.  This problem may have been fixed over the years, but I dealt with this for my entire deployment.  So when commo blackouts occurred, very frequently, at Camp New Jersey, the sound of soldiers banging their receivers against the plywood walls and yelling obscenities, usually directed at AT&T, resounded through the air.

Preparing to depart on our convoy north to Iraq.

Preparing to depart on our convoy north to Iraq.

When we needed nourishment we had to hike 3/4 of a mile one way to three huge circus-y looking tents set up as our dining facilities.  They offered a slight revival from the march through the hellish heat: low light, huge fans blowing icy air, and freezers full of popsicles for dessert.  The food was nothing special, and one day there was something called (I shit you not) Sloppy Elroy on the menu.  I don’t think anyone was brave enough to try it.  One day I ate what I still believe was camel steak.  It wasn’t half bad, with a texture and flavor not unlike a nice elk steak.  The food was clean, decent, and it got us through.  I loved to grab a rose flavored popsicle on my way out the tent flap door.  I know, it sounds weird, but I liked them and they made me feel a little better about the fact that I had obvious armpit stains and sweat running into my eyes while I was walking back to my tent.  Since the mini PX was on the way back (that would be another 3/4 mile) to our home base, many of us would stop to do some shopping for things like postcards, magazines, snacks, or CDs and lots of extra batteries.  In the heat, battery life was shortened considerably.  Because walking a mile and a half through blowing sand and blistering heat three times a day to eat quickly lost its appeal, many of us cut our meals down to two a day.  Usually this was the midday meal since it was so hot and many of us were passed out in our tents sleeping off the worst part of the day.

Goofing around on the playground at the Marble Palace.

Goofing around on the playground at the Marble Palace.

There were good highlights I remember from Kuwait.  On a trip to Camp Doha for a free day, I witnessed a troupe of British soldiers strip naked on the street and then proceed to put on their civilian clothes without any modesty whatsoever.  God save the Queen, it was glorious!  That same day I saw Gary Sinise perform with Kid Rock and Brittany Murphy at a USO tour at Doha.  When Gary Sinise walked onstage, there was a split second of confused silence, and then someone yelled “Hey, it’s Lieutenant Dan!” Then the entire crowd, thousands of soldiers, screamed our lungs out for him.  On another free day to a leisure park called the Marble Palace, I played on a large fancy children’s playground much like an overgrown child, and had my first frozen Starbucks drink.  Yes, I had to be deployed in order to experience Starbucks!  I found an old letter that I sent to my parents from Kuwait before we departed on our convoy to Iraq.  We stayed in Kuwait for about one month, just long enough to try to become acclimated to the harsh conditions and prepare our equipment for the two day journey into Baghdad.

Dear Family,

My beautiful picture

Howdy from Camp New Jersey!  Well, it’s hot here.  I’ve been trying to stay busy.  So far I’ve learned how to play Rummy and I’m in the process of learning how to play Spades.  I bought a Saddam Dollar the other day for the scrapbook…they’re kind of expensive but I’m going to try to buy more.  We are all pretty bored here.  I will attempt to describe this place.  It is flat as a pancake, nothing but sand for miles!  Clouds are rare, but I guess since it doesn’t rain there is no need for them.  The sky is always washed out with a blazing hot sun scorching anything it can reach.  Camp is really spread out.   The chow tents are about 3/4 of a mile away, so it’s a long walk back and forth three times a day!  It’s not so bad in the morning and night, but the mid-day walk to lunch is brutal!  Each soldier is allowed six 1.5 Liter bottles of water each day…I think that comes to about 2 gallons a day.  We sure sweat it out fast in the heat!

I haven’t seen any camels yet, but a few days ago a soldier caught a big lizard and showed it to everyone, then let it go.  The last couple of days I have felt really homesick.  This is definitely the most difficult thing I have had to do.  I sure won’t take anything for granted when I get home!  We are all nervous about the convoy north to Baghdad.  As long as we do it right, we should be okay.  Hundreds of soldiers from the Third Infantry Division have moved into camp.  They were at the spearhead of the war and have seen a lot of combat.  The stories they have told us are amazing!  I know that this letter is short and I am sorry, but there isn’t much to tell…

The soldiers from the Third Infantry Division who spent time in our camp on their way home had been involved in heavy combat in Baghdad and the overthrow of the old regime.  They looked faded, worn out and old even though many were younger than me (and I was young!) and they often gazed out into the desert with the trademark thousand yard stare of PTSD sufferers.  I lost count of how many times I saw a 3ID soldier break down in the chow hall after looking down at his meal and seeing something other than Salisbury Steak.  They were haggard, like they had exhaled much of their souls into the desert, and we National Guard soldiers were still so new, bright, shiny, a little bit fat, and very naïve.  A First Sergeant from a tank company attached to the Division spoke to me very candidly about a connection he noticed between our two very different units.

Headed for a free day of Rest and Relaxation, with my camera ready.

Headed for the Marble Palace for some fun.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but seeing so many smiling, happy, gorgeous female soldiers who are clean and well kept and friendly is the best possible thing to happen to these boys in months!” he suavely purred through a mustachioed Latino smile.  He went on to explain that his boys had been in such disturbing forms of combat and many had taken enemy lives; they were still reeling from the natural ethical consequences of these experiences.  He told me that they felt no better than a pack of wild dogs and that they still had bad days when they acted no better.

“But when we got here and saw this company full of angels from…where did you say you are from again?  South Dakota!  I have never seen so many beautiful women in one company before, and again please do not take this in a harassing manner, Sergeant.  My boys’ morale skyrocketed when they saw female soldiers.  So I told them to try and talk to you all, to practice making conversation, because for the last several months they have only spoken and acted like war hardened soldiers.  They have not seen women in such a long time, they have forgotten how to act around women!  Now it is time to become softer and kinder, to stop acting like a pack of wild dogs.  They are good boys and they all served so courageously.  So I hope you and your friends do not mind if my boys try to make conversation, however awkward it may be.  But you ladies just might be our saviors before we go home and face our families.”

It was a strange favor to ask; maybe not everyone in the Army would consider it professional or even appropriate.  But war is a strange place and stranger still is the ongoing struggle between the sexes.  I think the First Sergeant was onto something, and there was nothing perverse in his intentions.  Having compassionate females to talk to proved to be helpful to those still coping with demons.  In some ways, the females in my company who did talk to the soldiers going home acted as freelance counselors without even knowing it.   By the time we left Kuwait we were anxious to get out of the repugnant sand pit, or the world’s largest litter box, as many called it, and move on to something new.  We all survived Kuwait, but we had experienced a major eye opener thus far in our new world.  We had seen that life in Iraq was going to have an effect on us.

— G

A Picture of Life Through Letters

I finally found the letters I had stashed away for all these years.  They were in an ugly little box tucked away in a closet, just as I suspected. After sorting through them, I chose a few of my favorites, and compiled statements for readers to browse through for a taste of life in 2003 and 2004.

home

   From an anonymous student:

April 23, 2004

Dear Soldier,

            Hello, my name is Kay.  We are watching “Saving Private Ryan” in our English class.  As I watch I wonder, is this how it really is or do they show all this violence for the sake of our entertainment?  I’ve got two older brothers that were over there; one is now out of the Marines and the other is going back for the second time.  It’s scary when there are people you love over there and you never really know if they are okay or not.  We only heard from my brothers a few times when they were there.  Because it takes so long for the mail to get back and forth, which I’m sure you already know.  I was just wondering what you do over there and how long you have been there and how much longer you have to stay…wanted to say Thank You for all you have done for the U.S. while you have been over there.

Sabers 001

Part of a letter I did not actually send:

First of all it’s very humid.  I’m never dry…always sweaty.  Don’t worry, but it is still dangerous here.  We have our Engineer Village along the West Wall [of BIAP].  This is a favorite spot for the Fedayeen, the Baath Party, and Iranians to launch mortars…Luckily so far the incidents have been minor.  Nothing more than a mortar here or there and a few quick shots over the wall.  We haven’t been officially attacked…I’ve been doing a lot of foreman and NCO/leader stuff.  I’m coming into my own now, feeling better about my position.  The Iraqi men on the projects will ask me questions about cement, soils, etc. and respect my expertise (if any?).  Some are cautious about talking to me and most do not shake my hand.  I think it is custom…not prejudice…

Today I went to the Gates of Hell in downtown Baghdad for a ceremony practice.  Tomorrow the brigade commander for First Armor Division will relinquish command…I’ll be in another ceremony, this time as the guidon bearer for the company.  The Gates of Hell is a gorgeous monument: arches that look like two arms with crossed sabers.  I got pictures, so you will get to see them.

Mysterious letter dated on my birthday, writer unknown:

October 9, 2003

How are things in Baghdad, Iraq?  Everyday lately on the news we see that our men and women are getting killed.  I trust that you are okay.  I pray that you are…I am glad you like the [care package] items.  I went by the list your CO put out…About the tape — you didn’t mention the kind of tape that works best for you so I sent “Duck” tape.  I’m grateful for the person that invented this product; there are hundreds of uses for this item…

What do you do about the dust problem?  Do they supply you with dust masks?  What can be done about the dust that settles in your lungs each day?  If it stays in there and stacks up won’t that cause problems in the future…health problems?

This one

Survived the Easter Attack, 2004.

Letter from an ex who joined the Air Force:

…just finished my first week of Tech School.  I don’t know if you had them but we got these stupid things called phases where we are limited as to what we can do.  This phase concept blows absolute ass, because seeing how I just got here I am in Phase 1, and in Phase 1 you have to be in your dorm by 2200 every night…Plus you have to be in BDUs all the time except when in your room…not to mention no alcohol until Phase 2.

OKAY TIME OUTIf you are an Army veteran who went to Basic Training and AIT circa 2000 like me you are probably laughing at this joker right now because he is totally whining about PRIVILEGES that we Army grunts NEVER got.  I have no idea about training for the Navy or Marines, but seriously.  The Air Force is spoiled.  Let’s read more, shall we?

So right now I’m pretty disappointed, but at least it isn’t basic training…I’m sorry  I didn’t write to you while I was in BMT (Basic Military Training), I just didn’t have time.  It’s kinda funny.  I was talking to one of my real good friends…and he just couldn’t believe I made it through Basic Training without talking back to anyone…I don’t know how I made it…it really wasn’t that bad, I mean besides the yelling.  I lost 20 pounds, then put on 7 pounds of muscle, so I’m feeling pretty good right now…proud of myself.

The part about BMT that did make me smile was Warrior Week.  If you didn’t know, Warrior Week was a week we spent at a mock forward deployment camp.  Tents, MREs, fake MIGs, the whole nine yards.  We did the confidence course, the tactical assault course, road march, all that war game stuff.  Only thing is we didn’t really do any war games, which is the whole point to the week…I thought the best part was shooting the M16; it was hella fun and I missed getting expert marksman by 2 but I can retest in six months.  But the real reason I kept a smile on my face is because I remembered a certain someone telling me about her National Guard war games experience…I don’t know why, but the second day of Warrior Games I got the thought of you doing your little war games stuff stuck in my head and I couldn’t quit smiling all Warrior Week.  The thought of you runnin’ around in a Kevlar helmet with BDUs or fatigues or whatever you call them made me smile…At the time you told me, I only had a mental picture to go by, couldn’t really put myself in that spot.  And then Bam!  There it was, I was at Warrior Week understanding what you were talking about and being like “Damn, this is what G-money did, well kinda did.”

Yeah, he called me G-money when we were dating.  Okay back to Army stuff.

Rough draft to my father:

My beautiful picture15 October, 2003

Dear Dad,

Hi! How are you?  I am fine…back from a run!  We ran a mile, then turned around and alternated sprinting, walking and jogging on the way back.  After that we lifted weights to work our biceps.  I had a really good time…Today is our phone day, I mean at midnight our phone day begins.  I’ll try to stay awake to call Mom.  Our cell phone was taken away.  And now AT&T is running a monopoly.  The bastards are ripping us off so from now on I’m boycotting AT&T!  The battalion still has four phones, and the company gets them every five days, so I’ll just have to call then.  At least the battalion phones are on a [better] exchange rate, not like AT&T which charges 92 cents per minute.

My beautiful picture

A memo from a constituent services representative from Senator Tom Daschle’s office:

Tuesday, June 15 2004

At the pie and coffee social in Belle Fourche, I met with a woman…She and her husband were helping raise her beautiful grandson…two years old, but his mother hadn’t seen him for either of his birthdays because she was serving in Iraq.  [The] grandparents had placed pictures of [the] mom on the refrigerator, and the little boy would walk up to the pictures and kiss them.  [He] was an absolutely charming little boy; he had bright blue eyes and was wearing a floppy red hat that he refused to take off during the entire social.  He immediately jumped into my arms and gave me a big hug while his grandparents watched and laughed.  Her parents wanted [the boy] to meet Tom and talked about how important it was to watch out for our troops, and make sure they are properly protected and taken care of.

ASIDE: My son did get to meet Senator Daschle, and became a big fan of Tom.  At another pie and coffee social in Belle Fourche during the 2004 campaign my little monster wouldn’t stop yelling “where’s Tom Daschle!?” during Tom’s entire speech, so his wife  Linda gave him a tour of the campaign bus to keep him occupied.  At our redeployment ceremony both Senator Daschle and Governor Rounds were accosted by him because by that time he had developed a fetish for sticking his hand into men’s blazer pockets to find “treasures”. 

My beautiful picture

Letter from a Vietnam Veteran in Idaho:

Hope this finds you safe and well.  I talked with your dad last Sunday.  He said you were caught up in the 90 day extension.  I know it seems like a dirty trick.  I got caught in one in 1969 while in Korea.  I watch a couple hours of war news every day.  It is hard to believe…we don’t get much feedback on the good things that are going on.  We are well into Spring now; the blue birds are back.  I hope you know and will let your friends know that we support you and pray for your safe and speedy return home.

I heard about the Baghdad Boils, must be sand fleas?  In Nam there were leeches, snakes, and the occasional tiger.  I was planning to go to South Dakota when the school year was over but I think I’ll wait until you come home.  Gas is at $2.00 a gallon.  I am hoping to get caught up this spring.  I haven’t got your letter yet; I keep waiting got your mom to forward it.  I think she may be a little preoccupied, you suppose?  Be well, be safe, keep the faith.

Another friend from the Air Force, this time an Academy graduate:

10 September @ 9:30 p.m.

I found that other letter I wrote on my co-worker’s desk.  I was pleased to see it because I actually wrote down some thoughts I was meditating on, and they were significant to me.  What’s up?  Today I went to talk to some high school kids about the Academy.  I really think that they were bored because the teacher kept steering the subject onto the semantics on it.  You know, what’s the commitment, what exactly do you pay for…  I wanted to talk about the fun parts, challenges, prestige, and benefits of going there (of course I included the service to the nation thing too).  Oh well, we also talked about being a “special agent” but it was hard to gauge their reaction.  I’m sure they enjoyed it…  I kind of like public speaking.  It hasn’t presented any problem as far as nervousness or anxiety.  Only time I felt fidgety was when I was briefing a one star about the status of my squadron.  However, as long as I know the general topic I can usually get by.  Not to say I’m any good at tit.  I just don’t hate it or avoid it…

Giving the flight simulator a spin at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Giving the flight simulator a spin at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Then I went to work out during lunch.  It’s really nice to knock out most if not all my lifting during my 45 minute workout.  Hardly anyone is there and I can really focus on the task.  Except for the occasional girl; that’s a give-me (is that the term or is it “givey”?)  Then in the afternoon (after work) I can run and be out quick to enjoy my night of reading and writing to you and cooking, witch is a learning process for me (very hard to make a good meal).  By the way, if you’re thinking “what guy reads, writes, and cooks at night?  He’s gotta be gay…no man does this for fun.”  Well my DVD player went out and so I have nothing but the radio and SNL and Family Guy on my computer.  That only lasts so long before picking up some books.  Currently I’m trying to improve my memory with a memory techniques book.  You reading anything over there?

Getting back to my day, after lunch I came back to work in my gym clothes.  I started washing cars and did about six cars.  Fun, right?  After 3-4 hours of that I noticed how much time people take out of their day with smoke breaks.  I have the occasional cig on a weekend, but even that is bad.  If I were General of the Military I would not allow smoking in uniform or on base.  What do you think?  Am I way off here?  Honestly, I don’t mind washing cars and putting my back into it.  You know what I hate is the 200 jackass/smartass comments as [people] walk by.  Here are some of my favorites: “you washing cars, huh?” (No, I’m massaging the car’s wax coat you stupid fuck!)  “You going to do mine next?” (Yeah, El Fucko, just as soon as I’m done using your office for a shitter!”) and last but not least, “you missed a spot…” (Holy shit!  Why did you open your mouth?!  You’re a freakin’ moron.  Lay down and put your head under the tire so I can release the parking brake and put you to use!)

Allright, that was pretty much my Wednesday.  Still looking for a letter, but no worries.  You just relax and try to keep healthy and strong.  Hmmm, I wonder if/when we’ll ever see each other again?

Your Friend on the Same Continent

Quick note from my Battle Buddy from Advanced Individual Training:

SGT Battle,

Wanted to add this quick letter to your package.  Hope it gets to you near the holidays.  I’m certainly not expectin’ miracles though…My boys are doing well, the third boy on the way.  After that I will find out my plan for duty…Our unit left on the 10th of December for Fort Sill…they will train up for three months roughly, then head out…I really admire your strength Battle.  I can just see that big white smile through all that beige and brown out there.  I have you all in my heart.  You just hold a special spot.  Love you and Happy Holidays!

Love,

Your Battle

My beautiful picture

A Baghdad sunset.