Friday, May 9, 2008

A Day So Long

May 9, 2008
There are no holidays for the American soldiers serving in Iraq. Memorial Day is a day like any other, in spite of the fact that every day, on average, at least one soldier will die while serving his or her country. In a sense, that makes every day Memorial Day in Iraq.
When a soldier dies in Iraq, a memorial service is held to commemorate his life. Recently, a service was held at Anaconda, a large base in Balad, for two soldiers from the 1st Squadron 32nd Cavalry Regiment who died when their vehicle, an MRAP (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected), rolled over, off a narrow canal road and headfirst into the water. The soldiers were Lieutenant Timothy Cunningham and Private First Class John Bishop. LT Cunningham was twenty-six; PFC Bishop was twenty-two. Both were married. LT Cunningham also left behind a one year-old daughter, Abigail.
Close friends of LT Cunningham and PFC Bishop spoke at the memorial service. Soldiers are, naturally, trained to be tough. Both Sergeant Roberto Munoz and Specialist Jonathon Dautremont had to pause in their tributes to collect themselves, to wipe away their tears. There is something very heartbreaking about a soldier so struck with grief that speech is impossible.
Amidst the sea of camouflage, one civilian stood out in the crowd that had gathered to honor LT Cunningham and PFC Bishop. In his dark suit, with his carefully groomed hair and moustache, the mayor of Balad might have seemed out of place, but his attendance at the memorial service was a very meaningful gesture. Two worlds were brought together, worlds that usually experience their grief separately.
Life is short. We all know this, but soldiers and their families are reminded of it every day. At the same time, days can be very long. Any day in Iraq is a long day for a soldier who misses his family, but these days are even longer for the families at home, who can’t just pick up the phone and call Iraq. The days Samantha and Abigail Cunningham, and Diane Bishop, and the rest of their relatives, have to face now that Tim and John are gone will be the longest they have ever known.
Over four thousand soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began, which means over four thousand families have endured some very long days. Four thousand may not seem like a big number, but it is big enough if you are one of the people whose husband or wife, brother or sister, father or mother, son or daughter is one of the four thousand. Abigail is not the only one year-old who has lost her father to this war.
Many of us have the luxury of viewing Memorial Day as a day off from work, a day of sales and fun with our families. We are very lucky. Over the past five years a lot of young families have learned the true meaning of Memorial Day, but what about the rest of us?
After five months in Iraq, I have come home. I met a lot of great soldiers who made me feel welcome at bases up and down the Tigris, soldiers who were doing their best to get through the long days away from home. I think about them every day, and hope they make it through the remaining months of their deployment safely. This Memorial Day I will be having fun with my family, but I will also be remembering the families who are not so lucky.

Friday, May 2, 2008

A Full Day (Even Without Lunch)

May 2, 2008

FOB (Forward Operating Base) Paliwoda is located in Balad, in an area that has seen its share of trouble but has recently been working towards a kind of calm. This doesn’t mean all of the bad guys are gone, but, thanks to the work of the 1st Squadron 32nd Cavalry Regiment and the increased efforts of the local population, the good guys are gaining ground.
The 1-32’s Bravo Troop gets around. In a country where no one appears to be burdened by a great sense of urgency, Lieutenant James Blackburn and his soldiers must seem strange, running all over the place, trying to get things done.
In one day, spent in a town called Ad Duluiyah, Bravo Troop and their interpreter visited two gas stations, two schools, several local businesses, a sheik, an Iraqi police station, where some cops were asked to join us on our patrol, a gravel pit, a canal, and a home, where they were almost served lunch but there were not enough hours in the day.
The soldiers will be visiting gas stations until the fuel situation in Iraq is sorted out. So possibly forever. The purpose of these visits is to see if the stations have fuel, and if they are selling it at the price set by the government, which is very difficult to determine without watching individual sales. The results were mixed. The first station was open; the second closed. A closed station can signify several things. The station owner might willingly allow his fuel to be diverted to the black market, or he might not be getting his fuel for reasons beyond his control. Lieutenant Blackburn urged the men managing the station to work harder to make sure their fuel deliveries arrived as they were supposed to. Black market products are harmful chiefly for two reasons: the profits may help finance terrorism, and the cost of black market fuel is higher, adding to the burden of people who are already struggling financially.
During the first of the school visits, the soldiers dropped off supplies, some of which were sent from a soldier’s family to be distributed among the children. The headmaster was grateful, but also took the opportunity to point out the condition of the building, which was dark and showed signs of deterioration, and also to ask for help improving the grounds around the building. Requests have a way of multiplying when the soldiers are around.
After leaving the school, the soldiers patrolled the business district. With the introduction of a CLC (Concerned Local Citizens), or SOI (Sons of Iraq) chapter, the business district is safer and there is increased traffic and development. New shops are being opened; new retail spaces are being created. Lieutenant Blackburn made note of the new additions and talked with the shopkeepers and workmen while his soldiers helped the SOI secure the area.
Lieutenant Blackburn also paid a call on a local sheik, and discussed their shared responsibilities, which included the school we had visited. While the sheik and the lieutenant talked, the medic of the squad was approached by a boy who was limping on a bandaged foot. The medic did what he could to treat the boy, and then it was on to the gravel pit.
The headmaster and Lieutenant Blackburn had decided the simplest and most affordable way to clean up the grounds around the school was to cover the hard dirt and worn grass with gravel. The gravel merchant saw the American soldiers and dollar signs shone in his eyes. The lieutenant had anticipated the possibility of being presented with an inflated price, and had come armed with numbers of his own. After a successful preliminary discussion, the convoy moved on to the second school.
The second school was very much like the first. The building was showing its age, the students making do with few supplies in stripped down classrooms. In addition, this school had no running water. Lieutenant Blackburn had reached an agreement with a local SOI member to repair the existing plumbing system. He had not finished the job, and both the lieutenant and the school leaders showed their exasperation.
The SOI member had also been hired to clean out a dry canal that had become a dumping ground for garbage. The lieutenant was working on getting a pump repaired so this canal could be filled with water, thus greatly improving the lives of the residents in the area. Some progress had been made, but, as with the project at the school, the job had not been completed.
Lieutenant Blackburn and his soldiers had been invited to lunch, and, with the business of the day taken care of to the extent that it could be, a local meal sounded good. The soldiers arranged to guard the trucks and our host’s house in shifts. Unfortunately, as soon as the lunch party had sat down in every available chair, as soon as PFC (Private First Class) Rick Fassett had settled himself on the living room floor, propped up with brightly colored pillows to help counter the weight of his body armor, the lieutenant was alerted to a scheduling problem. There was work to be done back at the base, so, after a quick apology and a promise to return the following day, the convoy returned to Paliwoda.
It took some time for the 1-32 soldiers and the Iraqi civilians to get acquainted, but now they understand each other better. There are still those who regard the Americans warily, but trust is building, and more progress is being made. The soldiers make every effort to deliver on their promises, and they are trying to persuade the Iraqis to do the same. The revitalized business district is proof that good things happen when Americans and Iraqis work together.
The residents of Ad Duluiayah have become used to the presence of American soldiers. They recognize the digital camouflage pattern of their uniforms, and they recognize that every twelve months or so a new group of soldiers will arrive to replace the old ones. They may not have realized right away that the soldiers of the 1-32, of the 101st Airborne Division, would be working so tirelessly on their behalf, but they know it now. And they are lucky enough to have them for fifteen months, instead of twelve.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Paint by Numbers

April 25, 2008

Soldiers in Iraq are called upon to do some pretty thrilling things. All of the dangerous, exciting stuff—dropping from the sky, raiding buildings, chasing bad guys—that is what they trained for. And maybe even what they signed up for. That is the stuff they look forward to. But most of the tasks soldiers are called upon to carry out are not dangerous or exciting, not the stuff of Go Army commercials.
Sergeant Jonathan Fondow settles claims. Although he may spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, Sergeant Fondow has a deep and unique understanding of the consequences of war. As a member of the JAG (Judge Advocate General) office, Sergeant Fondow works with soldiers, providing them with assistance in legal matters, but he also spends one day a week working with the Iraqi people, processing their claims. He meets the Iraqis at a building called the CMOC (Civil Military Operations Center) at Anaconda, a large base in Balad. He listens patiently to their stories, and treats everyone with respect and courtesy.
The nature of the claims varies. Some people come to the CMOC because a member of their family has been injured or killed as the result of American operations. A condolence payment of $2500 for the death of a relative will be awarded to a family if the claim is approved. The rules and regulations governing the claims process are complicated, and do nothing to explain why a life is valued at $2500, but the 101st Airborne Division does what it can within these parameters to help the Iraqi people.
One visitor to the CMOC had been approved for a condolence payment, and she was given a specific day to come back to receive it. All payments are made in cash. Two other claimants were seeking compensation for damage done to their homes during combat operations. Sergeant Fondow cannot just take their word for what has happened. He has to conduct an investigation, which includes determining whether or not Americans were working on that day, in that area. This is not easy to do, and sometimes claims are filed months, even years, after events happen. It would be tempting to deny these claims immediately, but Sergeant Fondow gently persists with questions that often unearth details that make a claim easier to substantiate. Both homeowners remembered that the Americans had detained their neighbors, an odd coincidence, but, with the names of the detainees, it would be much easier to prove that American forces were in the area.
Paying Iraqis for losses or damages that occur while we are fighting a war against their bad guys may seem strange, even wrong. But the philosophy of the soldiers who work at the CMOC is that this is a relatively small group of people, and the payments, in the scheme of things, are also relatively small. By meeting with people, the soldiers are building goodwill. Even those whose claims are denied feel better knowing that they were heard by the Americans.
Lieutenant Brian Reynolds counts people. He does a lot of other things too, but one of his missions is to conduct a census of the people living in the area the HHB (Headquarters and Headquarters Battery) of the 2-320 Battalion is responsible for. There is something quaint about a group of soldiers wandering door-to-door, avoiding angry, barking dogs, the lieutenant shuffling through forms on his clipboard, all so they can collect data.
In addition to learning how many people live in each house, Lieutenant Reynolds gathers information about how basic needs are met. Electricity is only available for part of the day. Water is fetched from the canal. Fuel is usually bought on the black market. Some families have no phone or car. This is the simple life.
The most complicated aspect of census-taking is, it turns out, turning down offers of hospitality. If every offer of lunch had been accepted, the soldiers would have enjoyed several meals, but with the temperature already over one hundred degrees, and the desire to finish the task pushing everyone forward, most offers were politely declined. Iraqis are very serious when it comes to sharing their food and opening up their homes. They had a hard time taking no for an answer.
It began to seem unfortunate that the soldiers couldn’t stop what they were doing, fan out all over the village, and break bread with all of these generous people. But they are soldiers first, diplomats second. A very close second. They can’t let down their guard because it is always possible someone is watching, waiting for an opportunity.
At one of the homes the soldiers entered, most of the family was present but one of several brothers went to collect another from his shop. The soldiers knew this man when he walked in the room. They considered him a terrorist. Did he know how the soldiers felt about him? Did his family know about his reputation? He joined his family in trying to persuade the soldiers to stay for lunch. Would having lunch with him have changed anything?
A civilized and meaningful interaction with an Iraqi citizen, whether it is a widow filing a claim, or a farmer reciting the number of people in his family, has to be considered a small victory. An Iraqi who has had a positive experience with the Americans is an Iraqi who might think twice about turning a blind eye to insurgent activity.
Sergeant Jonathan Fondow and Lieutenant Brian Reynolds, and all of the soldiers they work with, do their best to treat the Iraqis they encounter with courtesy, even if some of them might be terrorists, even if the task at hand is sometimes tiresome. They know everything counts. Everyone counts. The work they do, assigning numbers or values to people and events, may not be what they signed up for, but they are helping to paint a very detailed picture of Iraq today.