Tuesday, September 27, 2005

What's that taste?

Most of the time, right before I roll out of the gate on a mission, I get the jitters. Maybe not so much jitters, just a very sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s this queasy knot of fear that I can’t quite control but doesn’t really incapacitate me. Usually it hits after the mission brief, as we are loading up, buckling in, doing that last second check of your gear to make sure everything is where it is supposed to be and is secure. It sits in my stomach, and I usually think something like “it would be really embarrassing to throw up in front of these kids. That wouldn’t do at all.” It goes away when we hit the gate and all that excess adrenaline is routed to my eyes and ears, where it is needed. Then it is all business, yelling about what you see and what to do, pointing out potential hazards to the driver and gunner, yelling into the radio, and trying to stay on top of the chaos of Baghdad traffic. Last week, as we were rolling out, we were talking about one of the villages we would be going through, doing an assessment of some construction being completed there. I told my crew to that this was a nasty insurgent village. I mentioned that the last time I was there, doing a cordon and search, we had gotten into a firefight with some jokers on the other side of the Tigris, who lit up our cordon as we were searching a riverside house. I said that during the firefight, I was hiding behind a wall, wetting my pants and sucking my thumb (Only partially true). The laughter shed some tension, and my stomach relaxed.
We hit the road and pulled into our first stop, everything went great, happy smiling kids waving, yada yada yada. The poverty in this little squatter’s village, alongside a canal leading to the Tigris, is as abject as it gets. One of the “homes” we parked beside was an old conex container with a door and window cut out of it, with a satellite dish on the roof. One of these days I will get around to posting about the post war Baghdad real estate market. Anyway, as we were leaving that village, rounding a line of buildings that border the highway, we spotted a guy digging a hole next to the road. Now in Iraq there is only one reason why some guy would dig a hole next to the road, and that is to throw an IED in the hole. Imagine his surprise to suddenly find 3 humvee’s surrounding him, and 3 M240 Bravo’s pointed at him. We searched him and his car, and turned him over to the Battalion QRF (quick reaction force). A short lived success, 2 days later another US patrol was hit by an IED in the same spot. We moved down the road to our next stop, a school we are renovating. We were supposed to meet a civilian contractor there, who was going with us to the “nasty” village. The contractor showed up without his car, and asked if he could ride with us. The fact that he was unwilling to drive his own car into that particular village was enough to make us reassess the necessity of going into that village that day. We decided the work could wait for another day, when perhaps we weren’t expected. In Iraq, dropping by unexpectedly is a good way to do business.
We revised our route, and stopped into another village to talk with some of the local civilian leadership. This village is reasonably friendly, and full of happy smiling kids, yada yada yada. We started handing out toys and goodies, which always causes a near riot of kids fighting over the best stuff. We had a couple of soccer balls to hand out. These are the prime items for the boy in the village. Scoring a “futbul” makes their week. One of the things I have learned over the years is that if you want to know what is going on somewhere, ask the kids. So I did. I asked, in Arabic, one of the preteen boys surrounding us if there were any problems with bad guys. He replied in perfect English, while rolling his eyes and pointing to the village across the highway, “yeah there are wahhabis in that village, now give me a F#*&ing futbul”. OK then, I guess I am not the first American soldier this kid has had contact with!
Finally, the glad handing is over, the goodies are distributed, progress is made. We mount up, and head in. Final tally: an IED delayed, a terrorist in jail, a school gets just a little closer to complete, and a village gets maybe too Americanized. Not a bad morning.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Dad interrupted

On Friday, my Wife and I celebrated our 16th anniversary. It was the third anniversary we have spent apart, and each time I promise that this will be the last time. Somehow that hasn’t worked out yet. 8000 miles and 9 time zones is a long ways apart, but we managed to spend some time together anyway. It was early evening here, late morning there, the kids were at school, and I was done with work for the day. We chatted, flirted, and blew each other kisses on the webcam. We smiled and laughed. We talked about the past and the future and pretended that the present wasn’t real, like we were on a date, enjoying dinner and each others company. Keeping a marriage going is tough under any circumstances, but we are pretty much a statistical miracle. 3 deployments, and 9 years working in a prison, night’s weekends and holidays, working Christmas day or Thanksgiving evening, it amazes me still that she stuck with me. What the hell is she thinking? Well, whatever keeps her from tossing me out like yesterdays trash, Thank God for it!

Missing another anniversary reminded me of all the other moments I have been missing. A couple of weeks ago, school started. Our oldest daughter (the artist) started high school. Our middle Daughter (the athlete) started middle school. And our youngest Son(the Jedi) started second grade, his first year of being “alone” at school, without the burden of a big sister running around the school creating oh so unreasonable expectations for him. The Artist is keeping my absence a secret from her teachers to avoid any special attention it may bring, because talking about it with people who lack a mutual perspective just doesn’t help her deal with it. She made me very proud the other day when she told me that she doesn’t like her government teacher because “Dad, she is really liberal”. I get the feeling that if this particular teacher knew that The Artist spent Election Day 2004 waving a Bush/Cheney sign over Highway 10, it may cost her a few points on the final. She is currently scheming to create the perfect moment to inform this teacher that “My Dad’s in Baghdad and he says wishing failure on his mission does not support him!” She chuckles with glee when she talks about this, and at the same time feels bad that I am not there to share the fun. Her confirmation is next spring, and I will be home.

The Athlete doesn’t share too much with me about how she feels, until it is time to say goodbye, then the emotion comes surging to the surface. She has always been the fiery one, tough as nails and determined, but still a little girl when faced with a father going to war for what seems a lifetime. The single most painful moment of my life was in 1996, as I was leaving for Bosnia, when my name was called to get on the bus. The athlete, who had been tough through the whole thing, asking questions and taking in answers with little comment, watched me turn to climb on the bus and screamed, as only a 3 year old can, “Daddy Noooooooo!” as I walked away. How I climbed onto that bus I don’t know to this day. Subsequent goodbyes have gotten easier, sort of, if only through repetition and familiarity. Hockey tryouts start in 2 weeks. I won’t be there.

The Jedi, named that because he is 7, and what else could a 7 year boy old be? While I was home on leave, we saw “Revenge of the Sith” together. It was all he would ask me before I came home. “Dad, are we going to see Star Wars together?” As far as he was concerned, once we checked that box, it was a successful vacation. The rest was icing. His current plan involves building a clubhouse in the backyard together when I get home. The plans are elaborate, as they should be. When I asked him how we would build the clubhouse in the middle of winter, when I get home, he applied perfect 7 year old logic: “we can build it in the garage, and then move it when the snow is gone”. As far as I am concerned, it is a perfect plan. A few minutes a day of sweeping snow off of cars, and scraping windows, is an insignificant price to pay. Cars come and go; clubhouses last forever in a son’s mind.

Four more months. I get to be a real Dad again in four more months.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Has it been a week?

This has been a busy, boring week. I have spent a lot of time doing mundane stuff that must be done but still turns the mind to mush. Inventories, evaluations, and a lot of correspondence about a lot of stuff that is necessary but not very exciting. The dirty little secret of war is that these things don’t stop, as much as I wish they would. We are starting to plan for our redeployment, still 4 months away, but, like Christmas shopping, you can’t start too early.

The saving grace of the last week has been the temperature. We are starting to see perceptible dips, at last. Now I never in my life thought that I would be calling highs of 115 cooling off, but amazingly enough that is the case. It has been getting down into the low 70’s at night, and staying below 100 until late in the morning. Just a couple of weeks ago it would start at about 98 in the morning and head up into the mid 120’s by 11:00, and stay there until sundown. Hopefully in a few weeks the temperature will be bearable around the clock, and we can start to open windows, and get some of the summer funk out of our rooms. In Minnesota, we look forward to spring so we can throw open the windows and get some fresh air after a long winter, after surviving in heated spaces for 5 or 6 months. Here, the cycle is reversed, and autumn gives us the chance to air out rooms that have had air conditioners running non stop, not staying ahead of the drying sweat smell in the rooms. After 6 months of sweaty socks, boots, and t-shirts, my room REALLY needs to air out. Gold Bond can only do so much.

When I think back over past deployments, there is always some environmental factor that stands out, some unpleasant memory that defines that particular place. When I was on the USS John F. Kennedy, it was the constant noise, hum, and motion of the ship. In the Balkans, it was the mud. And here, it’s going to be the heat, the pain of inhaling mouthfuls of dust and fire, and feeling the water leave your body faster than you can replace it. I believe in what I am doing here, but I will not miss this place.

I thought I would throw in a few links to some great posts I read this week. I have decided that this essay in particular, Tribes, needs to be read by everyone. Bill Whittle is a genius. Read it, and then take a moment to define yourself. I have decided that after 22 years of military service and 9 years working as a corrections officer, I have probably earned the right to call myself a sheepdog. I am somewhat at peace with the fact that even if the sheep do not want saving, and may curse being saved, save them I will, because it is my nature. I know the wolf when I see it.

Ben Stein does a great job of stating the obvious here.

Here is a great timeline of Katrina and the aftermath, and here is a nice “grey” look at the math.

For those who toss around the “chickenhawk” label.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

As fast as they can

The events of the last week in New Orleans have left me, well, speechless. Even the tragedy in Khademiya, just a few miles from here, on Wednesday, where nearly 900 Iraqis were killed in a human stampede seem insignificant compared to Katrina’s aftermath. That makes it tough to post from here, because while yes, the war does go on, everyone’s attention is focused on New Orleans, which is as it should be.

I do want to spout off a little bit at some of the critics who are attacking how long it took for the military to arrive. There seems to be a perception that the National Guard is available at a moments notice, capable of just rising out of the ground where they are needed, instantly capable of providing food, shelter and medical care. Reality is that it’s going to take 2-3 days from the time the Governor decides they need large numbers of Guard troops until any are available. Think about it. What needs to happen? What are the troops needed for, what’s expected of them, what expectation is there of the need for force, how long are they needed, what facilities exist to support them logistically, who is in charge….these are just a few of the questions that need to be answered before the first phone call is made. Then units start to get called up. 24 hours minimum to get 75% of your soldiers to the Armory. The other 25% are out of town, or they moved, or gave us a bad phone number, or any one of many other excuses. Then you start getting trucks loaded, weapons issued, ammunition drawn, food and tentage loaded, life support for the troops coordinated, turning the probably very general deployment order into an executable Operations order, and finally start moving. That’s another day, minimum. You’re looking at 72 hours from the time the Governor says “we need the Guard” until you can put any troops on the ground. Logistics convoys that can actually deliver relief supplies will take another 24 hours to load, minimum. If everything goes right, and the relief supplies needed are actually on hand in the quantities needed. So 4 days to get relief supplies delivered.

If I recall correctly, the Governor of Louisiana asked for troops on Tuesday. Troops began showing up on Wednesday, were providing security on Thursday, and food showed up on Friday. That is actually a phenomenal response time. Now those troops need to be supported logistically, meaning tens of thousands of meals daily, thousand of gallons of water, medical support just to keep the troops healthy not to mention the victims, billeting, toilets, and trash removal. Add to that fuel and maintenance requirements. Not an insignificant task.

I just ask people, before you get too critical of the response, to consider the scope, the numbers, and the reality of how long stuff really takes to get done. It may not seem fast enough, but it is as fast as it can be.