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.