Sunday, January 20, 2008

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Squeaky Wheel

January 18, 2008

The Bayji JSS
It has been brought to my attention that I am a bit of a complainer. Captain Mike Sykes points this out every time I see him. Mike is the person in charge of getting me off the base, finding me a seat in any convoy embarking on a mission or patrol that might be of interest to me. Lately, I think his only interest has been in getting me off FOB (Forward Operating Base) Summerall period. So when Mike arranged for me to spend the night at a crappy little base (I know, I know) in Bayji, I was afraid I would never get to see the inside of my beloved VIP trailer again.
The convoy pulled into the Bayji JSS (Joint Support Station) and slowed down just long enough to push me out. Okay, it wasn’t quite like that. The trucks did come to a complete stop. Everybody got out. Mike was traveling with Major Brad Mock and Lieutenant Colonel Pete Wilhelm, so he had to behave himself. He couldn’t laugh diabolically while I took in my accommodations and fought the urge to beg him to let me go with them. After an MRE (Meals-Ready-To-Eat) picnic, Mike, Brad and Pete headed back to the parked trucks. Pete turned to me and said, “We’ll see you in a week.” What? A week? Was Pete in on Mike’s evil plan?
I turned to face the building, the Joint Support Station. It seemed to lean to the left, struggling under the weight of the sandbags that were stacked on the flat roof. In front of the building was a charred rectangle where the mess hall had stood until recently. It burned down in a suspicious fire, and a new one was in the planning stages.
The 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade’s 1st Battalion’s Alpha Company, an MP unit, and Iraqi interpreters and police officers all stay at the JSS, which is right in the city and often a target. The soldiers rotate back and forth between FOB Summerall and the JSS, usually in five day shifts, and I do not envy them. I met a couple of female soldiers who became my heroes for putting up with the challenging conditions.
My goal was to try not to complain during my time at the JSS. No, seriously. But with its camp-like atmosphere, its spotty heating system, its lack of a VIP trailer, I figured the only way I was going to meet my goal was by not talking.
I set my backpack down on a cot in a dark room—a cell, really--wedged between two other rooms. One of the adjoining rooms housed at least four Iraqi interpreters, and the other was occupied by soldiers. My room was not much warmer than the outdoors, where it was somewhere in the forties. Alpha Company’s commanding officer, Captain Tim Meadors, had said we would be going out later in the day, so I had time to kill, but I would not be killing it here.
The MPs take turns monitoring the entrance to the building. They check IDs, pat visitors down, and try to pretend it’s not that bad, sitting outside in the cold waiting for their shift to end. I stood outside and observed until I couldn’t feel my feet, then went back inside and upstairs to the living room, if you can call it that, where soldiers and Iraqis tried to relax, heating up Hot Pocket after Hot Pocket in the microwave. We watched Superbad, and it felt good to laugh, although I also feared this might be the highlight of my stay.
At about 7:30 pm, we finally left the base to pay a visit to a local sheik. It was 8:30 by the time we found his house. The electricity hadn’t come on, and the room wasn’t heated, so we sat stiffly in plastic chairs while the captain and the sheik talked with the help of an interpreter, their faces lit by flashlights and headlamps. There didn’t seem to be any urgency to the conversation or the visit. We left after about twenty minutes, having accomplished I don’t know what. Supposedly the sheik was a friend, but why descend upon a friend’s house unannounced, scaring his family and disturbing the neighborhood, if only for a brief chat? Much of what goes on here is confusing.
Next we had to make a stop at FOB Summerall. That’s right. Home of my beloved VIP trailer. We were picking up the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team and escorting them back to the Bayji JSS, where there were some explosives that needed to be taken care of. Oh the despair I felt when we pulled into the parking lot at Summerall. I thought about making a break for it, but knew Mike would never let me live it down if I cut short my JSS trip, so I stayed in the truck and tried not to think about my lovely private bathroom, the abundance of heat, the solitude.
Morning could not come fast enough. The Iraqi interpreters had loaned me one of their space heaters, so the night was not as cold as it could have been, but still I had kept my coat and hat on all night.
As I wandered through the building trying to shake off the night’s chill, trying to figure out why the soldiers weren’t furious about their living conditions, an Iraqi spirited me into a room where he and his friends were having breakfast. The cheese and bread tasted delicious. We drank chai, and talked through an interpreter, and they said they were committed to working with us, and I wanted to believe them. The interpreter didn’t want his picture taken--many don’t--always a reminder of the dangers facing those who work with us.
There seemed to be no plans that included me (perhaps word had spread to Bayji that I was a complainer), so once again I positioned myself near the entrance to the JSS, where a handful of soldiers lingered. One of the interpreters, Alex, who would love to move to the United States one day, pulled out a list of English words he found difficult to pronounce, hoping for some assistance. At the top of the list was “Congratulations.” I couldn’t think of a reason why he would ever need to use that word; the words used most often here have only four letters.
After a long day of standing around with the MPs, watching them manage the flow of traffic into and out of the building, and then watching Crash with a few of them, Day Two at the JSS finally drew to a close, and I got into a convoy headed back to Summerall. Or so I thought.
The Drive Home
Some of the convoys now include a relatively new vehicle called an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), which is designed to withstand IED explosions better than a humvee. The soldiers seem to like the idea of a safer vehicle, but since most of them still have to travel in humvees, their excitement is limited. I was traveling in the MRAP in our convoy, and became fairly well acquainted with its interior. It is more spacious than a humvee, but still doesn’t seem designed to accommodate soldiers wearing body armor.
We left the Bayji JSS at about 8:00 pm, and were scheduled to make a stop at an Iraqi checkpoint which had been hit by an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade). There had been no damage to the checkpoint, and no one had been hurt, so we moved on. Briefly.
A call had come in from the IPs (Iraqi Police), who thought they had spotted an IED, so our convoy was sent to check it out. The IP truck was parked down a deserted narrow stretch of road lined with tall grass. A perfect place for an ambush.
Two soldiers, Ryan Rockriver and Chris Gardner, were sitting in the back of the MRAP with me. Ryan and I tried to look out the side windows to get an idea of what was going on outside, but the windows were too small and too close to the ceiling, so we sat back down and listened to Chris and the gunner argue over which state was better, Texas or California. Then the driver got involved and there was a moment of silence while they tried to figure out if there was anything to say, good or bad, about Idaho.
The soldiers who had taken a look at the IP’s discovery determined that it was worth calling out the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team to have a look, which meant we had signed up for at least another hour, probably two, of waiting.
Ryan and Chris were beginning to fidget in their seats. We had been out longer than expected, and they needed to tinkle. In situations like this, soldiers usually just hop out of the truck and everyone politely looks in the other direction, but it’s not easy to hop out of an MRAP--they are much higher off the ground—and the area did seem dicey. So the search began for empty bottles. Having found two suitable for the task, Ryan and Chris went to opposite corners and I covered my face with my helmet. It was sort of a bonding experience.
The EOD team arrived at about 10:30 pm, and, with the help of their robot, determined the IPs had found a mine. They cleared an area for a controlled blast, and once the mine was taken care of we resumed our journey to FOB Summerall.
It was midnight when we rolled through the gates. The VIP trailer had been reserved for another VIP, an actual VIP, so I had been booked into a room in the Battalion headquarters. While it didn’t have its own bathroom, there was a TV, and I was really just looking forward to some quiet time, a good night’s sleep, but one of the beds was occupied by a guy. One of the beds was occupied by a guy? What? Was this another of Mike’s little tests to see what I was made of?
Turns out Rusty was a private contractor waiting for a flight out. He was a very sociable fellow who talked and asked questions while I unpacked my backpack and wondered if I could somehow sneak back into the VIP trailer and ask the real VIP if I could bunk with him. I also wondered how I was going to recover sufficiently in time to convince Mike I had enjoyed a lovely visit at the Bayji JSS and my complaining days were over.
As much as I complain, I always learn something, either about myself or about the soldiers, every time I leave the comfort of the VIP trailer and go outside the wire. My trip to the Bayji JSS taught me just how soft and spoiled I am. And I also learned that it’s not easy to pee into a bottle in an MRAP, in full body armor.
Mike does a great job arranging to get me out as often as possible, and I have no right to complain about anything, although of course I will unless someone sews my mouth shut. But I like to think I am complaining on behalf of the soldiers too. I think every soldier deserves a VIP trailer of his or her own. Of course they do. Even Mike. Especially Mike. For putting up with me.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

I Heart Iraq?

January 8, 2008

Iraq’s tourism industry got a real shot in the arm (poor choice of words?) earlier this month with the maiden voyage of a ship packed with camera-clutching sightseers across the majestic Tigris River.
Okay, well, there was a boat. And it did cross the Tigris.
The Tigris is majestic. In some places. The stretch that borders Bayji, home of the Bayji Oil Refinery (BOR), could use a little work. There is a bridge that falls several car lengths short of spanning the river, thanks to damage done by an explosion, so the easiest way to get to the other side is by boat.
The Iraqi Army (IA) has a battalion stationed on one side of the river (the BOR side), and a lone company set up in a much smaller base on the other side. Major Oscar Pintado and his Military Transition Team (MiTT), part of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade’s 1st Battalion, are responsible for five IA battalions, and they try to visit each of them regularly, offering guidance and support as these battalions take over more and more of the responsibility of providing security for their country. The MiTT team members spent the morning meeting with their Iraqi counterparts in the battalion, but before we could break for lunch, Major Pintado wanted to visit the company across the river.
It turns out some people don’t find the idea of crossing a river, even if it is the Tigris, exciting. A seaworthy vessel makes such a trip more appealing. Our vessel did not look seaworthy. Crudely fashioned out of rust and just enough metal to support the planks we would be sitting on, the boat did not inspire confidence. The soldiers were not fighting each other over who would get to make the trip and who would have to stay back. Most of the guys were more than happy to stay back. It wasn’t just that the boat looked like it might sink immediately, but the weight of their body armor meant the soldiers would sink immediately too.
While those selected for the river crossing collected themselves on the sloping shore, thinking positive thoughts, mentally rehearsing the best way to shed our vests if the boat capsized, the majority of the MiTT team, together with some of the IA soldiers, pulled security. We would be vulnerable in more ways than one out on the river, and the soldiers are trained to recognize these risks and take precautions, which meant positioning the humvees and themselves in spots where they could provide us the best coverage in the event of an attack. Though, really, an attack on the boat would take us back to square one: figuring out how not to sink like a rock. And if any insurgent was watching, he probably figured it would be smarter to save his ammo and just let the boat take care of us all by itself.
We were divided into two groups; the boat would only hold 4-5 people, including the captain of the ship, a polite and quiet Iraqi soldier who probably thought we were idiots for making such a fuss--the journey only took a few minutes. No, it wasn’t far at all. Just far enough for me to gaze up and down the river and realize it was the Tigris, and the sun was shining, and we were in a crappy little boat, and probably Katie Couric never had it so good.
Once we arrived at the other side, Major Pintado and the colonel from the IA battalion spoke with IA soldiers from the company, giving them a chance to voice their concerns. There were very few structures on this side. They had to cross the river to use the battalion’s showers and to pick up supplies, like food. They had a fairly large area to cover security-wise, but some shifting would be occurring, and more troops were going to be brought to the area. It sounded like from a soldier’s standpoint, things were moving along, however slowly. But I couldn’t help feeling that, from a tourist’s standpoint, they really could have used a souvenir shop. A place to buy a t-shirt: I crossed the Tigris. I made this suggestion to the colonel. He looked at me as though I could take a lesson from the Iraqi women and just be quiet.
Having conquered the river, we were more than ready for lunch. Major Pintado admitted one of the reasons they liked visiting this IA base was lunch. I had been to an IA base in Kirkuk, and I knew what he was talking about. We entered the dining room and were welcomed by the sight of a table covered with all kinds of local dishes. Fresh bread, vegetables, hummus, rice with chicken, lamb, apples and oranges, salad, and, when we were finished with our food, chai.
We finished lunch around 2:00, and if we could have napped, we would have. Instead, we said our goodbyes. The colonel said our visit (maybe not so much mine) had made him happier than he had been the day before, and he was sincere.
The drive home was slow. The lead truck was on the lookout for IEDs, and anytime something looked suspicious, we stopped so they could check it out. At one point, we came upon a donkey standing stoically on the side of the road. He was weighted down with saddle bags, which were a concern because insurgents have been known to conceal bombs in animals, both living and dead, and the bags looked heavy. I didn’t want our excellent day to be ruined by an exploding donkey. We waited. We watched him and he watched us. After a few minutes of this odd standoff, the soldiers decided maybe sometimes a donkey is just a donkey, and we continued home.
It may be a few years before Iraq can compete with, say, Nicaragua as a vacation spot, but it has potential. A peaceful boat ride across the Tigris followed by a delicious meal would have to be considered a great day by most. It was for us. And let’s hope everything worked out for the donkey.

Friday, January 4, 2008

A New Time Zone

January 4, 2008

We have all heard and used the expression “time flies.” But you won’t hear anyone using it in Iraq. If you would like your minutes to feel like hours, your hours to feel like days, you should move to Iraq. As far as I know, I’m the only tourist currently wintering in Iraq, but as soon as they get the dust issue sorted out, and Iraq becomes a real vacation destination, I think one of its strongest selling points might be that you can spend a long weekend here but it feels like a month. Now that’s value.
Of course, our Army deserves some of the blame (or credit, depending on your point of view) for the time situation in Iraq. They have been working very closely with the Iraqi forces, and have taught them everything they know about waiting (which is a lot). The Iraqis, in turn, have taught our soldiers a thing or two about how to set the pace, how to keep others waiting. So our soldiers together with the Iraqi police and soldiers, perhaps without even trying, have actually achieved what many thought impossible; they have stopped time dead in its tracks. Yet I feel ten years older.
The day began at 0530, that’s 5:30 am to most of us. That’s way too early to me. Actually, I was ready at 5:30, but didn’t get picked up until 7:00. A soldier would not be surprised by or complain about this ninety minute discrepancy, but I’m not a soldier. I’m a VIP. There were no other VIPs to complain to, so I was forced to look at the bright side: at least they showed up at 7:00. And this time the VIP trailer has a working bathroom! I have my own shower! I am visiting a small base, FOB (Forward Operating Base) Summerall, near Bayji, home of one of Iraq’s oil refineries. I was invited to witness the progress being made between our forces and the Iraqi forces, and I have learned that even though progress is being made, you still have to wait for it. And wait for it.
I was transported to an even smaller base jointly operated by American soldiers and Iraqi police, where Captain Aaron Billingsley of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade’s 1st Battalion, and Lieutenant Russell Kaufmann, an MP from a Washington, D.C. unit, and I waited to speak with the Iraqi police chief of Siniyah. After over two hours of waiting, we were shown into the office. They talked, and I mostly listened. While I was listening, I realized there is something about just putting in the time that the Iraqis equate with cooperating. They will talk in circles, avoid certain issues, claim to know who some of the bad people are but make excuses about why they haven’t been picked up yet, thank us for all of our help, and make promises they don’t intend to keep. These conversations go on all the time, they usually feel like a waste of time, but they give the impression that the people in the room have nothing but time.
It was beginning to seem as though the police chief was just behaving the way he thought he ought to, saying what he thought we expected to hear, putting in his time with the Americans until they moved onto something else, and then maybe he would have a chance to watch a little TV. But it turned out he was just slow to warm up. Once the unpleasant topics had been covered and/or dodged, he became more animated and he made a point of explaining to me, through our interpreter Nissan, how much he valued his relationship with our troops, beginning with the 82nd Airborne Division, and now continuing with the 101st and the MPs, who have helped to re-establish his station and reduce acts of violence in the area. So, though the conversation was not entirely productive, it served the purpose of maintaining the relationship, the spirit of cooperation.
In a land where a life can be cut short so quickly, it may seem surprising that the hours that make up a day are often squandered. Maybe this reckless disregard for time is a way of standing up to the temporary nature of life in a warzone. Getting nothing done today means it will have to be done tomorrow. Or the day after that. So life must go on.
There has been a very conscious effort on the part of our soldiers to try not to force our timeline on the Iraqis. Our soldiers, who have learned so much about patience since they joined the Army, are demonstrating what it means to be patient every long minute they are in Iraq. Although every day seems very much like the day before (soldiers make frequent references to the movie Groundhog Day, and did last year too), there is the possibility that by showing up each day, even if it is to have the same conversation over and over again, some change is occurring.
A tree may look very much the same from one year to the next, but each year is marked by a new ring. In Iraq trees, like everything else, do not have an easy time of it. But they do grow, and our relationship with the Iraqis does too. The rings may not be very thick, and the roots--it is hard to know how secure the roots are, but time passes, however invisibly, and maybe after enough of it passes, the changes will be evident and positive, and time will be looked at differently. Maybe its healing properties will be recognized, and time will not have to worry so much about being killed either.