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.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Out Misbehavin'

A recent trip to Al Bakir Village confirmed what I already suspected about Iraqi kids—the steady supply of free stuff from well-intentioned folks in the U.S. has spoiled them.

On March 15, I went to deliver supplies to two local schools with a few soldiers from Headquarters Battery, 3-29 Field Artillery. Everything was going smoothly until one of the kids caught sight of a soccer ball mingled in with the boxes of pencils and notebooks. From there on out, I was swarmed with scores of kids demanding soccer balls. One of the more articulate brats said “Mister, Mister I am pupil at school. Give me soccer ball now.” Others just opened and closed their hands in the air as if to say “gimme.”

The kids seemed completely oblivious to the dangers of stepping right in front of a moving ten ton truck. As we left the first school to our next destination I had to pull several youngsters out of the way and continually check under the vehicles to make sure no one was crawling under them (some were).

Even after all the goods had been equitably distributed, the swarm followed the military vehicles to the next school a few blocks over. With the efficiency and team work of a colony of army ants, a dozen children piled on top of each others’ backs to breach the fence of the other school to get to the booty. Some of the older ones preferred a more subtle method of attack—the little kleptomaniacs pretended to help carry boxes into the other school but clandestinely hid coveted items in their shirts when they thought no one was looking.

As a few brawls broke out among the boys, the only vestige of authority in sight was the irate and overwhelmed schoolmaster, whose switch dealt swift justice upon any hand that grabbed something out of turn. I also saw one father carting off one of the boys and hitting him upside the head until he was crying hysterically.

I learned from the first sergeant in the convoy I was in that despite all the effort to ward off thieves, a quarter of the items came up missing.

Experiences like that make me think twice about programs like Operation Iraqi Children. It seemed to me that all this stuff just contributes to the general disorder of the country, rather than “endearing the people” or “winning the hearts and minds” or any other overused slogan.

On the way back to the base, I felt the hemmet vehicle I was in go over something. I joked it was either a speed bump or a first grader. Aggressive begging just isn’t cute.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Maupin labs not what they're cracked up to be

Just as my head was deflating to normal size after having my opinion article printed in Army Times, another bit of my handiwork was picked up by the same magazine. This time the piece is a news article about the “openings” of two computer labs dedicated to Matt Maupin, the only soldier in Iraq who the Pentagon still has listed as “captured.” Though I am always happy when my articles receive national attention, I am beginning to think that this is a story that gives everyone warm, fuzzy feelings without carrying much weight.

The crux is that Matt Maupin’s parents, Keith and Carolyn Maupin, of Union Township, Ohio, remembered how their son had complained that internet provisions in Iraq were inadequate. They wanted to help troops stationed in Iraq communicate with loved ones, so they donated 90 computers for three new internet cafes at LSA Anaconda. On Feb. 14 I was present to report on the dedications of the second and third labs for the military newspaper Anaconda Times.

It sounds rosy, but I soon discovered a catch: instead of opening three new computer centers, the Army simply used the Maupins’ computers to replace the old computers in existing labs. Hence, the “new” computer labs are nothing but old ones with newer computers and pictures of Matt Maupin on the wall. This is not to say that the Maupins’ charity was a complete waste; it helps a little to have newer computer models. Even still, the Maupin’s intentions were clearly to allow troops greater access to the internet than before. That was not done.

My frustration at this was compounded by the steam of airy but meaningless statements issued from the command during the dedications. What irritated me the most was when a certain military leader claimed to have dedicated the deployment of a support unit to finding Matt Maupin. That was a nice gesture, but really, a hollow one. The most they could do is tell troops leaving on convoys “if you happen to see anybody who looks like Matt Maupin, let us know.”

To put it bluntly and perhaps a little rudely, being present at the dedications felt to me a little like be dragged to a church service of another religion. There was a sense that I was expected to be reverent combined with the suspicion that every one in the room was being fed a bunch of bologna. Despite the uniformed audience, beautiful a cappella rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the presence of two generals, the entire affair was just too intellectually empty to be touching.

Image: here I am dressed in full battle rattle--complete with my George-of-the-Jungle crotch protector--before going outside the wire, March 5.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

'Haji' opinion evokes interesting responses

My opinions have had a long history of ruffling feathers, so it's no surprise to me that my commentary on the Army's use of the word 'Haji' has gotten such a response. A few weeks ago I sent the article, which first ran in the Anaconda Times in January, to Army Times in the form of a letter to the editor. It ran in the Feb. 20 edition of Army Times, page 52 under the title "Calling Iraqis 'Haji' offensive." It was even complemented by a nice photo, which I did not take. Here are the letters I have received:

SPC Case,

Interesting article. One thing to include in any future continuations would be suggestions or recommendations for replacement words.


CPT Travis Cain
7th Bn, 101st Avn Regt
Battalion Signal Officer

Specialist Case,

I read (online) your article about the use of the term "Haji" for the Iraqi locals, whether friend or foe. That is a term that has been around the Army for many, many years, and your assumption that it stems from the term for those who have been on the Hajj may be in error.

I don't know for sure where/when it started, but the opinion of most older soldiers I know think it came from the old Johnny Quest cartoon program. Haji was Johnny's little brown-skinned buddy(hence its use for almost any southwest to east asian person). I would guess that more soldiers are familiar with that cartoon than with Islamic customs.

You are correct, however, in that the term is usually used in an unflattering way, and when we used to brief the COSCOM commander there at Anaconda (during OIF 1) using that term was a sure ticket to a butt chewing.

Hope all is well for you there. SUSTAINING THE LINE!

Steve Larson
LTC, USA (Retired)
PO Box xx
Livermore, IA xxxxx
Cell xxx-xxx-xxxx

Dear Specialist Case:

I hope that you will continue your writing and research because you have a gift for it. You are obviously an intelligent and well-educated man, but you have "come of age" during the era of "political correctness." I would also suppose that President Clinton was the President you knew of as you were growing up.

Your letter was very well written. But I cannot disagree with you more!

First, I'm unsure if we should even care whether we call Iraqis Haji or not! Consider, for a moment, what we might have called them!

Secondly, the story of Islam is a history of violent military conquest. Moslems were finally defeated in Europe near Vienna about 1712, and this ended, for 300 years, their attempts to conquer Europe.

Thirdly, Moslems are committed to the defeat of Western civilization as we know it, and the murder or forced conversion of Christians to Islam. It is not a religion that can successfully co-exist with a democratic or republican form of government.

Lastly, sooner or later we all choose sides and I can easily foresee in the next few years a union of all Moslems committed to the destruction of not only the State of Israel but also Christian civilization. As an American Soldier you have already made a commitment to defend the Constitution and the United States of America. I sincerely hope you will not abandon that commitment!


Robin M Cathcart
(I looked this guy up, he's a retired captain)

Well, there you have it--more proof that the Army needs to be enlightened by me. It's a rough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Terrorists, be warned: these guys are serious

I don’t know what the Iraqi commando trainees were saying in their rousing Arabic cadences, but somehow I got the impression the message they wanted to convey was ‘We’re going to open up a can of Whoop-Ass on the insurgency.’
The date was Feb. 18. The location was an obscure installation in Baghdad. The event was “stress phase” of the Iraqi Special Warfare Center Commando Course—some of the toughest training the fledgling army has to offer.
My assignment was to write a story accompanied by pictures for the Anaconda Times, a military newspaper based out of Balad. As it turns out, the story ended up being one of the most photogenic and interesting in a long while.
With all the tumult that is going on in Iraq, it is nice to see that there are still people who are dedicated to securing the country and combating terrorism. ‘Dedicated’ is definitely the word that came to mind when I saw the exhausted troops carry logs up a hill after being drenched in cold water.

I had the opportunity to help Sgt. Ryan Poland, my broadcast counterpart, record brief interviews with three of the commando trainees. The first question I asked all of them was “Why did you come here to do this difficult course.” All three of them gave variations of the same thing: to protect their families, to take back their country, to stop terrorism. One of the three soldiers alluded to other “personal motivations” but would not elaborate, so I suspect it wasn’t all out of idealism.
Who am I to blame them? If any one asked me why I enlisted, I might very well answer “to serve my country,” knowing that I wouldn’t have been quite as patriotic had it not been for incentives like the G.I. Bill and the chance to gain writing experience.
I hope their decisions to join the Iraqi fighting elite pay off, whatever their real reasons may have been.

Instructors used "flash-bang" grenade simulators like the one above to create an element of chaos in the training environment. This one burned a small hole in my DCU trousers.

And I thought the Army hosed me...

To read my article on “stress phase” of the commando course, see the March 5 edition of Anaconda Times.