Thursday, December 23, 2004

LONG update from Iraq

Greetings from Iraq.

My ‘slick’ (a slick is a certain group of soldiers that travel via one particular aircraft) left Kuwait on December 18th. Between packing duffle bags, loading foot lockers onto semi trucks, and generally running around, I was back and forth to the phone center as Sally gave birth to our daughter Lillian Rose. Luckily I had some time before our flight left Kuwait to hear Sally actually give birth to Lilli, which – while nowhere near as good as actually being there – was great. I got to hear Lilli’s first cries from the other side of the planet!

After saying hello to Lilli for the first time ever, I then boarded a C-130 cargo plane with all our gear on a pallet lashed to the ramp behind us. Standard protocol is to use evasive maneuvers on the descent, just in case, so the landing was fun.

At one base, we sorted our gear and had the joyous pleasure of walking with all that gear 300 meters out to two twin-rotor Chinook helicopters. I carried my 45-lb body armor, nearly 50-lb of weapon and ammo, water, the usual Kevlar, boots and whatnot, a footlocker, duffle bag strapped to my back, spare machine gun barrel, etc. It was well over 150-lb of stuff, and we got to carry it off the choppers too. The actual Chinook ride was fun as well, as the chopper was completely blacked out (no lights) and pulled its own evasive maneuvers too, again just in case. The Chinooks landed at another base and after a few hours sleep, we drove across the street to our new home.

Our base is small, only about .56 mile perimeter, and used to be used as a base (and torture area) by Saddam’s Fedajeen, his secret police and the equivalent to Hitler’s Gestapo. Apparently the first U.S. unit to occupy the base found some pretty grisly stuff down in the basement.

The compound is dominated by a building everyone calls the Taj Mahal, although it looks nothing like the Taj. It’s more like a couple of concrete slabs with covered over windows (all light sources are blocked out to prevent people observing us and to keep the camp dark at night) that apparently is the mirror imagine of a Yugoslavian air force building that a lot of these guys recall from a previous deployment to Bosnia. It’s probably just a Soviet template building, "Structure No. 23; Military, Office, Intimidating," used throughout what used to be the Warsaw Pact nations and their cronies.

The climate here is Mediterranean, very lush with palm trees and apparently lots of date groves around too. However, the weather when we first got here was cold. Highs were about in the 60's during the day but below freezing at night, literally. We had a couple of the shower and toilet conex's pipes freeze and we couldn't use them for a few days. It's warmer now though and we don't need a jacket at night any more. Hopefully it will stay that way or else those late night guard shifts will be that much longer due to the cold.

The smell of wood smoke is constantly in the air, as I think fires are most people's primary heat source. The primary unit here now is a brigade from the First Infantry Division (1st ID), aka "The Big Red One." We currently fall under their command and we will through the elections, as we provide base security (and some patrols) to free up more of their guys to patrol and quell any elections troubles.

After the elections, our unit will head up further north to settle in for the rest of our year deployment. Up north, we’ll be taking over from the 25th Infantry Division (Light) and the living conditions and bad guy activity levels up there should be better than here. Since there will be some overlap with the 25th when we get up there, we will be authorized to wear either the 1st ID’s or the 25th ID’s patch as our combat patch (your actual unit patch goes on the upper left sleeve of the uniform while on the right you can wear one patch of any unit you served in a combat zone with, that patch going just above the American flag).

Once the 25th rotates out, we will be on our own up there, so the experience we are gaining here from our 1st ID hosts is invaluable. (Since we’ll be under our own command up there, this also means that we could wear our own 116th patch as a combat patch too.) Here we live in yet another big white tent (this one cylindrical – I’ve become quite the connoisseur of large tent design), but we have bunk beds with actual mattresses on them, which is nice. We have some flush toilets in a ‘conex’ (van-sized shipping container-like box) across the street, along with two shower conex’s. The showers are sometimes hot and sometimes they get cleaned too. The 1st ID guys live in two two-story barrack structures, which are pretty ‘rustic’ (busted out or covered over windows, broken stairs, etc.) or 2-4 man conex living units, both options certainly better than just a big old tent.

By the way, the Army lives off of conex units, since they’re so tough, versatile, and shippable. We’ve seen them everywhere and in every imaginable configuration I think possible.

The food is certainly ample. It’s pretty tasty and the portions are big – maybe too big. There is plenty of pop/soda, condiments and breads, made to order eggs and omelets or grilled burgers/hot dogs, desserts (the freeze ‘n serve cookies are particularly good), local fruits, and all the near-beer we can drink. I actually have taken a liking to the near-beer which, while not quite beer tasting, offers an alternative to sodas and very sweet local fruit juices. The sodas by the way are not quite like those in the States. The Coke and Pepsi taste a little different, less sweet and more ‘diet-y’. Most of the cans are the old pull tab style, have English on one side and Arabic on the other, and the Mountain Dews and diet Cokes/Pepsis come in small little ‘Red Bull’ sized cans, for some reason. The one bad thing is that all the food comes from the base across the street and arrives in insulated marmite containers, so it’s usually only luke warm (at best) and often soggy.

But I can never complain, even though a number of the guys here refer to this place as ‘a hole.’ I’ve spoken to two Gulf War vets in our platoon, both of which went for extended periods (up to 60 days) without a hot meal or a real shower. And of course you can look further back to say, The Battle of the Bulge when American soldiers had to shoot a .45 pistol at the frozen ground to create a hole, then drop in a quarter-stick of dynamite to blow a bigger hole, then, having finally reached unfrozen ground, actually dig a hole to try to sleep in. And the life of soldiers in World War I was much, much worse. As soldiering goes, we don’t have it too bad at all.

The diversions are ample too. We have a gym with lots of free weights and aerobic machines and there’s a running track (one loop is ¾-mile), and we’ve just started to hit both pretty regularly now. There is a pool table, foosball, and ping-pong down inside a bunker, which also has the cybercafé that I use. (The ‘cybercafé’ is nothing more than some plywood carrels with six Gateway computers, plastic chairs, and a fluorescent light.)

But even with all this stuff around, most guys use their laptops as their primarily recreation, either watching DVD’s on them or linking with other computers to play video games against each other (or they use their computers for writing extremely long blog text…). The games Black Hawk Down and Halo are particularly popular and there are peer-to-peer (where guys link their computers to each other) Black Hawk games that last long into the night and then are replayed verbally over the breakfast/lunch/dinner table. It’s funny to hear guys shout back and forth across the tent, things like, "Oh yeah Smith, how’d you like that claymore [mine]?!" I just heard this exchange: "Oh no, ‘Gnome Hunter’, you got me!" "Ha-ah, I heard you comin’, punk." "Yeah, I was just a little slow on the draw there." I hear this kind of stuff regularly. Pretty funny. Each company here has their own ‘cybercafé’ and we’ve been assigned to one company’s computers by last name. Being a ‘C’, I use Alpha’s co mputers, which are PAINFULLY slow most of the time. Last night it took me 37 minutes just to log onto my Army email account and send Sally a message (thus I asked Sally to ask you all to curtail emails to me for a while). Other companies’ computers seem to work better so I’ll try to hop on them in the future, if I can.

Two units here actually purchased wireless networks on the local economy, which cost them a few grand (but split between 30+ guys). We’ll probably do something like that once we finish up here and head up to our permanent quarters up north.

We’ve heard that the guys we’re actually replacing up north will probably just sell off their entire rooms for a few hundred bucks, often with wireless networks, TV, mini-fridges, video games, rugs, some furniture, etc. for a few hundred bucks per room. Don’t get me wrong, no one’s living quarters are really nice or anything (most of these guys’ stuff is scrounged, homemade, or is low-quality stuff bought off the local economy), but everyone certainly tries to make their digs as cozy as possible. Guys rotating out of country don’t want to have to bother shipping the stuff home, plus local items all run off 220 current, rather than 110 like we have in the States. (I forgot about this when we were settling in here and blew up a nice clip-on gooseneck lamp that Sally got for me. Doh! Still mad about that mistake as I really liked the lamp, I had packed it all the way from Ft. Bliss, and it was a gift from Sally.) All care packages are being sent up north too.

Allegedly, there is yet another conex filled with our packages and mail that will be driven down here. When it comes, we’re all expecting a couple of packages per guy so it should be quite the feast. We’ll have to run twice that day. And speaking of care packages, the 1st ID guys here are overloaded with random packages sent from various schools from across the nation. Each one is so sweet, with a note or card written from a grade-schooler inside, plus candy, gum, baby wipes (handy for quick wash-ups), hand sanitizer, and tons of toiletries. One of my packages came with laminated snowflake decorations that I’ve hung up on my bunk.

But there is SO much of the stuff that the guys here were really overrun with it. They were happy to see us arrive to take some of it off their hands and we were all too happy to oblige, especially when mine also came with a mini Etch-A-Sketch, just like the one Sally and I have at home. But even after raiding the pile, there are still more boxes filled with stuff that no one knows what to do with. So we’re doing fine on toiletries here. BUT please but don’t get me wrong – any ‘real’ care package sent my way will be put to very good use (even if I have to run three times that day).

The 1st ID brigade that’s here is an armored unit (tankers), so there are only three women on the camp, two medics and one ‘psy-ops’ (psychological operations – propaganda and whatnot) person. But there are a good number of women soldiers across the street at the big base, which has a beautiful new weight room, really nice chow hall run by Brown & Root (the omnipresent subsidiary of Halliburton), AT&T phone center, nicer cybercafé, and a PX (Post Exchange – like a general store).

However, for us to get across the street, we have to follow the usual protocols for leaving the camp: wear all body armor, combat load of ammo, weapons locked & loaded, hearing and eye protection, at least two vehicles with radios tuned into each other, etc. It’s a pain, but we make the run every few days.

Overall though, we don’t have it too bad at all. My dad (Vietnam War vet), my friend Todd (Gulf War vet), or a few million other guys (and probably the entire populace of Iraq, which is Third World-poor) could tell you that. (Our chow hall would definitely be the nicest and cleanest restaurant in the county, that’s for sure.)

Other than missing Sally, Lilli, and all of you, I’m doing okay and looking forward to working out a lot, reading as many books that I can, avoiding an addiction to the Black Hawk Down computer game, staying alert and safe, and just generally staying as busy as possible to make the days cruise by. With a little luck, I just might be home for Lilli’s second Christmas next year. That’s it for now. Thanks (as always) for all the good wishes and any mail sent my way (although I probably won’t get anything for some time…)!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Kuwait Photo

Here we are in Kuwait after an MOUT (urban assault) training. Back row: SPC Shriver (Military Police), SPC Timmons (Tanker), SGT Renon (Tanker), SSG Dmitrov (Tanker & squad leader) SGT Stewart (Military Police, my fire team leader) Second row: SPC Chesak (SAW gunner extraordinaire) SPC Wilson (mortarman and the other SAW gunner). Front: SPC Smith (Scout) Posted by Hello

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Second Louisiana Photo

Here we are after the live fire exercise. SSG Mace (my old squad leader), me (with my nice and light M4), SPC Shriver, and SGT Tozer (my old fire team leader). Posted by Hello

Photo from Louisiana

This photo was taken while we were still in Louisiana, en route to a live fire exercise at Ft. Polk. From left to right: me, Smith (holding what is now my SAW - Squad Automatic Weapon light machine gun), and Timmons on the back of a five ton truck.
Posted by Hello

Friday, December 03, 2004

Possible Kirkuk living situation

We’re still not sure if we’ll all be driving into Iraq but it sounds like most of us, including me, might be flying up. We’re hopeful about that, for sure. Also, someone from the 25th (the unit currently in Kirkuk) is coming down here to help us train and pick his brain about everything. Thus far it looks like we’ll be staying in some old Iraqi barracks, possibly with a pool, in one of the smaller fire bases, versus the actual FOB Warrior. Four guys to a room, indoor plumbing (maybe), and we are all still holding out hope that we’ll have internet for our four-man rooms. Most importantly though, the 25th has not had a single fatality during their entire year up north. Apparently the local Kurds work with the US troops to help catch bad guys, since they just want to go to work, send their kids to school, and generally get on with their lives without any gun fights in the middle of their town. All pretty good news, although Kirkuk still could very well be a ‘hot spot’ for the election.

Kuwait City

We took a pretty uneventful trip down to Kuwait City, or near there. It was a beautiful day and nice to get out and see the area a bit. It’s really quite desolate around most of here though, very little even in the way of shrubs and stuff. We passed these housing developments that were really impressive. They’re basically like rowhouses, except HUGE, like 80,000 sq feet per or so, 4-5 stories high and in cool pastel colors and hues. Each is pretty distinctive too in terms of architecture.

Apparently, Kuwait is so rich in oil that if you’re a national and marry another national, the government builds you one of these places. Oh, and you get $60-90,000 (figures vary) per year in oil money, just for being Kuwaiti (although you need be third generation to get any of this). As if that weren’t enough, most workers here are from elsewhere (our dining facility staff, for example , are all Pakistani and some sort of Asian) and the local Kuwaitis host say a dozen or so of these cats, then take 25-40% of their paychecks. So most Kuwaitis don’t do a damn thing for work. Not bad, but the downside is that you actually have to live here. Ugh.


We were supposed to spend three days in the field, but it never really worked out. We left here at 1300 the other day, went to a range to fire some live rounds and check our zero (making sure our sites on our weapons are aligned properly to where the bullet actually goes). After that we loaded up our trucks and drove to the next range were we were supposed to stay overnight, then train all the next day, night, and then next day again. Well, there was already another unit camped out there, using the range that night and the next day. After about 30 minutes of calls to higher-ups, we again loaded up the trucks and drove back here, arriving back late last night. Today was some training, then a lot of sitting around since nothing was scheduled for us. I finally got in a run and a trip to the gym though, thank god.

Oh and the day before we got to take the up-armored Humvees out to train on. Man, those are pretty impressive machines; 5 tons of armor and steel but can still cruise along over all sorts of terrain. They really take a lickin’ and we sure gave ours one, just punching it through all sorts of terrain and making it spin out and stuff. We’re such boys…

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