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.

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