Saturday, July 15, 2006

So long, Iraq

This will very likely be the last entry for this deployment.

Five of the twenty people in my unit are already back in the States. Two had to leave early because of family problems, the other three are our advance party who are supposed to help our de-mobilization in Fort Bliss. The rest of us have been hanging out in Camp
Ali Al-Saleem, Kuwait for the last few days waiting for a flight home. Say: Ali Al-Saleem. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?

Life down here has been sluggish and boring, but not as hot as when I was here in August. Thompson, Poland, Robicheau and I discovered a USO building where it was possible to play Halo 2 all day if you didn't mind waiting or crouching around a small screen. We didn't.

I think Ali Al-Saleem has to take the cake for the most laid back US base in the Middle East. Not even Anaconda (called "Shamaconda") comes close. Everyone here is in transit to or from R&R or to or from a deployment. The officers return salutes half-heartedly and some people slouch around in civilian clothes. Why not? Who cares? Myself I went without shaving yesterday and it was liberating.

Hopefully the freedom bird will come in tonight and I will soon be able to enjoy more freedoms in the good ol' U.S.A. Hooah.

Monday, July 03, 2006

All hail Sheik Spencer


For those of you who are not Middle East scholars like I am, “salaam” is the Arabic word for “peace.” When accompanied by a hand-over-heart gesture, it can mean “hello” or “goodbye.”

Over the course of this deployment, I’ve picked up on several Arabic words and phrases, some useful, some…well….not. “Shway-Shway” means step-by-step. “Shukran” means “thank you.” “Jundi” means “soldier.” “Mongoli” is an insult the jundis throw around that is similar to the American word “fag.”

In the last four months I have really been serious about learning to read, write and speak Arabic. Sgt. Marshall Thompson had been trying to learn the language since before we reached Iraq and trying to convince me to join him, but I figured the attempt would be futile. Then one day, in April, I think, I found a “Beginners Arabic Script” guide while searching through a box of books donated to troops. On that particular day I was far ahead on my stories and figured “what the heck.” (“Heck,” by the way, has no Arabic translation.)

I took the book home and started copying pages of each character. I showed my work to an Iraqi interpreter who went by Gus. Gus was impressed and agreed to give me free tutorials. I only visited Gus a few times before he became too busy to give lessons, but before I left Tallil, he gave me a first grade level Arabic work book he got from the Iraqi Ministry of Education.

Since returning to LSA Anaconda, I have continued my education in Arabic. I signed up for online Rosetta Stone Language courses, available free through the Army. The going has been slow, but I’ve picked up on words for “car,” “boy,” and “airplane.” I signed up for Idaho State University’s new Arabic program though I have all my foreign language credits out of the way with Spanish. I’ve even been looking into foreign study courses in Egypt or Morocco.

Okay, so I’m not exactly a scholar yet. I’m not even sure I have a firm grasp on the letter “H,” which has six different forms depending on what letters come before it and where in the word in appears. I’ve got a long way to go, but as the Iraqis would say, “Shway-Shway.”

Picture: This is me pretending to be a civilian reporter for an Iraqi Army training exercise in Al -Kisik. I accidentally saluted a sergeant major dressed like this. He looked at me like I was smoking crack.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Iraq therefore I am

For a while, I thought this BLOG was finished. Done. Over with. (If you noticed, I didn't have a single entry for the month of May and I haven't had a single comment for four entries.)

That is, until yesterday. I learned from my dad over the phone that he ran into someone who really wanted to read all this mumbo-jumbo, but my dad didn't remember who it was.

If you do exist, secret fan, this BLOG entry is for you. I hope you enjoy it because, in all likelihood, no one else will:

I am now back at Anaconda leisurely passing my last few weeks of the deployment. Everyone in the unit has stockpiled stories so that we would have a little time with no work before the replacement unit arrives. As it turns out, we've got a lot of time. I'm trying to make this time productive by studying Arabic on online Rosetta Stone language courses, provided by the Army for free, doing my homework on my Media and American Politics class from BYU Independent Study, and releasing my artistic energy through various creative writing projects, including this.

Last Monday I was doing something less leisurely: serving my second and, I hope, my last guard tower duty. My partner and I spent two four-hour shifts staring aimlessly into the flat country, looking for anything that appeared threatening. Nothing did.

The guy I was stuck in the tower with was Sgt. Jason Baldwin, a communications expert of I forget which unit. Interesting guy. Why is it the soldiers I have tower guard with always remind me of the strange people who sit next to me on buses?

Baldwin, however, was a pretty good guy. I found this out because when you're in a guard tower, you find yourself rehashing all kinds of anecdotes to total strangers just to keep your bored brain from petrifying. I learned about Baldwin met his wife while he on leave in Germany; they were attracted to each other even though at the time he spoke no German and she spoke no English. Now they've got two kids, a four-year-old boy and a daughter (of I forget how many months) whom Baldwin has never met. He told me about how he looked forward to reading books like "Green Eggs and Ham" to his children and how he worries about their grades even though they are too young to go to school.

Of course, I heard numerous stories about the son he had spent time with. I laughed when Baldwin told me that, at three years old, his son figured out how to rig up a Playstation before he did.

I didn't have anything to match stories like that, but told him a few stories from basic training and my deployment.

This particular guard duty we had more than conversation to keep us amused. On our first shift, some of the locals came very close to the perimeter fence to burn brush and graze their sheep. One of them, a man of maybe 40 years old, broke out singing and dancing. When Baldwin tried to sing along with the Arabic chorus, the locals found him very comical.

If our interaction with other cultures was always like that the world would be a whole lot better.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Back in Tallil

Just about every job in the Army has its perks, but public affairs has more than normal. Without a doubt, one of the biggest perks is the ability to escape a bad situation by fleeing to another base to cover units. That's what I did yesterday.

After spending only a week at Camp Anaconda, the largest and most anal base in the Middle East, I hopped on a sherpa with my duffle bag, camera and laptop to seek refuge in Tallil, that oasis of sanity in southern Iraq.

My reasons for leaving were manifold. First, there are simply no stories to cover without resorting to such desparate page-fillers as "DFAC employee strives for excellence" and "What you didn't know about uniform regulations (and, in all likelihood, don't care to know)."

Then there is the fact that the public affairs office in Anaconda is currently under renovation. We spent an hour one morning playing Tetris with the large, oddly-shaped desks in the Q-room so that the Turkish workers had access to the walls to work on the wiring. Everyone who once worked in that room had been displaced into other makeshift offices. The writers were working in what used to be the broadcast room and the broadcasters are working in the conference room. Getting a phonecall to the right person over the noise of the construction machinery was a headache.

If that wasn't enough, the personal noises eminating from the adjacent trailor were making sleep difficult. Even my headphones could not conceal all the moaning and grunting. I was surprised to find the trailor in the same place the next morning.

Suffice it to say, here I am.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Freaky weather

The sandstorm started as a brown smudge on an already gloomy sky. It appeared in the southeast at about 3:20 p.m. and covered the entire sky by 3:25 p.m.

A few weeks ago, I was in another sandstorm in Tallil. I watched it come in with almost supernatural speed, blocking out the moon and the stars. The howling of the wind was so loud that I had to yell to communicate the to guy I was playing chess with across the table at the MWR building. On my way back to my trailor, I saw the porto-johns that had been in a neat row thrown into a pile and covered with flies. The next day I saw more signs: some of the windows at the 16th CSG headquarters building, where my office was, had been broken, trees and street signs were uprooted and the southeast corner of every building was plastered with mud.

The one yesterday did not have quite the same intensity, but it was eerie in its own way. The strangest thing about it was the color of the sky--it was not brown, but a dull, glowing orange that reminded me of lava. It, too, had a phase where the wind was blowing so hard it shook my trailor, and for a while, knocked out the power. A few times I peeked out the crack of the door in curiousity and I could see debris blowing and feel the rain come down in heavy drops. The wind was blowing so strongly that I had to hang onto the doornob with both hands to keep the wind from yanking it out of control.

A few hours later, there was hardly any sign that a storm of any sort had occured, (except the tarp tied to a heavy beam, used to provide a shaded area between my trailor and the one adjacent to mine, had been knocked down.) There was even a beautiful sunset.

Strange country.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Of bombs and Bosnians...

A Bosnian bomb technition admires his find--a corroded blasting cap. In 2003, the U.S. destroyed a massive weapons cache.

About a month ago, I wrote what could be the best piece I’ve ever done, in or out of a combat zone, on a Bosnian explosive ordinance detonation (EOD) platoon. Unfortunately, I could not upload any of my photos using the computers available in Tallil, so I had to postpone this post until now.

The story, which made the front cover of Anaconda Times April 9, won the accolades of my superiors officers as well as Monte Morin, a Stars and Stripes journalist who covered the same unit the week before I did.

Here they are laying the explosives down to be detonated. I got to witness one of these explosions, but was a little disappointed. One thousand meters away I didn't even need ear plugs. Lame.

Brig. Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver, the commander of the 48th Brigade Combat Team, stopped by to see the work the Bosnians were doing. Here, he examines a mortar the technitions were busy excavating. So that's what they look like...

Negligent discharge policy needs change

Staff Sgt. Tejeda and I were sitting in the dining facility in Tallil a few days back when we heard talk of a negligent discharge from the troops sitting next to us. On my way back to the office after lunch, we spotted a bunch of Air Force MP’s standing around the clearing barrels. So the rumor was true. Some poor servicemember had ruined his or her career by shooting a live round accidentally. (That is, unless the servicemember was an officer.)

This incident caused me to reflect on the stupidity of Army weapons clearing policy. Here are three reasons why the current policy is wrong:

1.) Obviously, the whole point of punishing negligent discharges is to reduce injury and death. Yet nearly all of the people who lose rank for negligent discharges are punished for firing their weapons safely into berms and clearing barrels that are made to stop bullets.

2.) Negligent discharges are punished so harshly that many troops avoid clearing their weapons properly. As one soldier told me “I never pull the trigger when I clear my weapon. If there’s a round in there, you’re just giving yourself an Article 15.” Rather than risk excessive punishment, many soldiers prefer to keep a live round in the chamber of their weapon, increasing the risk of an actual injury.

3.) I learned from Sgt. Marshal Thompson that FOB Diamondback actually did away with clearing barrels in order to reduce negligent discharges. That makes about as much since as raising the speed limit to 200 miles per hour to decrease incidents of speeding.

Negligent discharges outside of controlled environments should be punished as they are now, but those at clearing barrels deserve more lenient punishment. If the Army wants to decrease incidents of death and injury, it will alter the current policy.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Military envy: an epidemic

You don’t have to look far to find seething sectarian strife in Iraq. Unfortunately, I’m not referring to the well-publicized spurts of violence between the Shiites and Sunnis. I refer instead to the pointless envy that exists between deployed U.S. troops.

For starters, Army troops are typically jealous of those on the Air Force side of the fence, who are deployed for much shorter periods of time, often don’t have to carry weapons around everywhere they go, and sometimes have better living conditions.

There is plenty of intra-Army jealousy to go around as well. More than once I have detected a whiff of arrogance coming from active duty troops when they learn that I am a reservist. Soldiers whose jobs require them to go off base on a daily basis have developed a new vernacular for those who remain on base all or most of the time, calling them “pouges,” “Fobbits” and Remfs (rear echelon mother F—ers). Then there are the troops in Kuwait who get the same combat pay as the troops in Iraq. Needless to say, soldiers in Iraq do not speak highly of them.

No one is quite as universally beguiled, however, as the civilian contractors, who often make more money for doing the same jobs troops do. Once, I saw a soldier walking past the Tallil headquarters of the contracting company Kellogg Brown and Root say “here’s my official KBR salute” and wave his middle finger in the air. Many a latrine in Iraq has been graffitied with slogans knocking the contracting group. One read ‘KBR: Keep Bush Rich.’

I would be speaking out of place to say everyone to quit their whining about how much worse they have it than everybody else. But I would suggest a little perspective. One thing being in the Army has taught me is there is always someone out there who is worse off than you. If you don’t believe it, read some of Ernie Pyle’s World War 2 dispatches. There are few, if any, troops in Iraq who endure the level of hardship that the troops did back then. Even the worst FOBs in Iraq have laundry facilities, showers and some form of internet access.

Instead of knocking the guy in Kuwait who had no control over his being mobilized there, it may be more psychologically helpful to count your many blessings, few as they may seem.