Friday, January 28, 2005

"This Place is a Hole"

Chris' second article for the Idaho Statesman was published January 28 on the front page of the local section. Read it here:!

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Welding & Pings

We recently got an upgrade to our guard shack, replacing the 60 or so Army cots with Iraqi-made bunk beds, complete with 4-5" pink foam mattresses. But the welds holding the metal bunks together were few and far between. Each bed swayed back and forth whenever someone just rolled over or got on or off. And then they started to break. Luckily none broke while guys were sleeping on them, but as people would sometimes sit down, the bottom bunk would just go ‘ping!’ and give way. Soon we had about a dozen beds broken, several more reinforced with ‘zip ties’ (plastic handcuffs usually used for detainees), and a whole lot of mattresses lying on the floor as guys decided not to chance the top bunk at all.

Fortunately though, we’re the National Guard. As guardsmen, we are an older group of soldiers with a diversity of real-world job experiences. While the First ID’s full-time, active duty welder was swamped with his regular welding work, we had a couple of guys who weld as their full-time job back home. They took a few days off of their guard duty to weld all the bunks, reassembling the broken ones and shoring up the others. Now we sleep more peacefully… when we do actually get to sleep… and I can write this with a little more confidence that I won’t suddenly hear ‘ping!’ and then find myself and my much-loved laptop on the floor.

Boston driving in Iraq

We're still doing guard duty and mounting patrols. Yesterday we almost got two Humvees stuck in mud on our patrols. The local mud is slick and clay-like so that you slide in it, then it clumps like wet concrete to your boots or tires, then you slide some more. Both times our vehicles were right next to irrigation ditches, so the sliding part was certainly hairy. For the second patrol, as well as future ones, we wisely decided to eschew any more non-paved roads for a while.

We also took a little side trip, driving north to a certain famous river. En route we passed a number of very large American convoys, all loaded down with materiel and supplies, some in civilian semi tractor trailers who had metal grates covering their entire front windows and grill. Approaching the river, we passed several enterprising young lads (about 8-10 years old) selling bootleg ‘adult’ DVDs (we did not stop), and then accidentally got into a lane that forced us to cross the river. Prospects at first didn’t look too hot.

The north-bound crossing is an Iraqi floating bridge and it pretty much embodies Iraqi ‘workmanship’. As we drove down the bank on the bridge, we first had to squeeze past an Iraqi civilian fuel truck that had slipped half off the bridge and looked like it had been there some time, since it faced south, towards us. Our right tire rubbed what was left of the far guard rail while my driver-side mirror passed just over the truck’s right front tire, which was in mid-air, by about three inches. While some of the guys in the Humvee found this nerve-wracking, I was happy to apply some of my Boston driving skills and cheerfully said, "I got it, I got it," as we passed the wreck.

The bridge itself I found more unnerving as each section raised up and down like a seesaw as we drove onto it. We drove on a section and our side would sink down as the far side strained against whatever secured it to the next section and raised up, all while making a metallic scraping noise, then finally making a big ‘KWHAM’ as it then teetered back down and impacted the next section. Armored Humvees, as you would figure, generally tend to be kinda heavy and do not float.

But we were quickly across and then turned south to come back across another floating bridge. Luckily, this was the U.S. version and was big, fat, wide, ample, safe, inviting, and just generally one heck of a much nicer ride.

By the way, I often get the chance to show off my Boston driving skills as Iraqi drivers sure are something special. In short, it’s a free-for-all. Many of our main patrol routes are divided highways and we, in an effort to thwart bad guys’ attempts at planting IED’s, drive down the center of one side of the highway, keeping us as far away from either shoulder as possible. But we’re often passed on the other side of the highway, as speeding cars first catch up to us from behind, then quickly blow across the dirt median and calmly head toward on-coming traffic. So we take up one side of the divided highway as they have three vehicles sharing two lanes on the other side.

In general, we always have the right of way. When there is a traffic jam, I just get on the horn until the cars part like the Red Sea, albeit a very narrow and crooked version that I have to gently guide my eight-foot wide Humvee through. Again, Boston driving skills come in handy.

And you should see some of the vehicles on the road. Sometimes we pass hood-less, jerry-rigged trucks that I swear were built in the 1940’s or 50’s, often right next to a new Jeep Cherokee or Mercedes. It certainly reminds me of the ‘have and have-not’ reality of the Third World. Mini-vans are all the rage, usually used as private ‘micro-buses’ where the driver just starts driving between towns, picking up folks for a fee. There are Bongos, the Third World’s truck of choice, which is a small truck (with TINY rear tires – about the size of small spare tires) with a sort of mini-van cab.

We often see Bongos, and other trucks, completely overloaded with stuff, sometimes stacked twice as high (and sometimes also twice as wide) as the truck itself. Some trucks are loaded with metal reinforcing rods that are so long that, strapped to the roof or side of the truck (sometimes completely obstructing the driver’s and/or passenger’s window and mirrors), they nearly touch the ground in front of the truck, pass over the top, run the length of the vehicle, and then drag on the ground behind the truck, scraping away on the asphalt. Needless to say, you can hear these particular guys coming.

Silverback Chesak

We started making up ‘super hero names’ for everyone in the platoon. Because of my age and my lovely back hair, I’m ‘Silverback’ while Smith, who’s only about 5’9" is ‘Battle Dwarf.’ Our 6’5" friend SPC Wilson became ‘Yeti’ while others became ‘Cro-Mag,’ ‘Mr. Furious,’ ‘The Impregnator’ (he has NINE kids), ‘Tank Boy,’ etc. We have one guy who used to draw part-time for Marvel Comics who might turn our ideas into a drawing of the platoon.

New England weather

Recently the weather here has been nasty: cold, rainy and windy! Ugh. Reminds me of New England. SPC Jake Smith and I were on guard duty the other day when this weather system was at its worst. We were in a concrete bunker that sits up on pylons so that it looks over the barb-wired wall. There’s a big opening about the size of a living room window to the front, two smaller regular-widow-sized openings to the right and left and a door-sized opening to the rear. The only corner that doesn’t have an opening has a hole in the roof. Rain was running through the hole and then also gusting at about a 45-degree angle through all the windows, sometimes simultaneously hitting us in the face and the backs of the legs at the same time. Smith and I did what we could, as our body armor and uniforms became soaked, our boots chilled from all the mud caked on them, and my glasses ran beads of water, to pass the hours.

I started telling Smith some of the mountain climbing stories that I’d read, stories about guys surviving overnight at 20,000+’ in a snow cave with no food, trying to make our situation seem not quite so cold. As big gusts hit us though, we would just start screaming back at the storm, trying to yell as long as the gust hit us. So conversations went something like this:
"So these three guys were dug into a snow cave on Mt. McKinley, completely out of food and with only one sleeping bag left."
"Man, that’s nuts."
"Yeah and they still had to get down. So they – AAAAARRRRRRGGGGG!"
"Oh man, that one was bad."
"Yeah. I just got rain in my friggin’ ear."
"Ugh. Okay, so these climbers start their descent and they climb back down into the storm that just hit them, because it AAAAAAWWWWAAAHHAAAHHAAAHH!"
Yeah, good times… good times.

Arabic numerals lesson

Here's a quick Arabic numerals lesson:
0 – ٠
1 – ١
2 – ٢
3 – ٣
4 – ٤
5 – ٥
6 – ٦
7 – ٧
8 – ٨
9 – ٩
I don’t know if these fonts will actually come across on the blog but it shows just how much more of a challenge it is to learn a foreign language that also uses a foreign alphabet. Since their numbers’ symbols are different than ours, it makes it more difficult for us to record people’s license plates and what not. You often have guys calling from a guard shack saying things like, "The vehicle is broken down outside the gate and it’s a blue Opel van. License plate is, ah… ‘Dot, backwards seven… ah, backwards three, V, upside down V… Dot."

Patriots Obsession

It is official: if there was any doubt before, it’s gone now as I have proven myself a true Patriots fan. Due to our guard and patrol schedule, we only have one night out of several where we can actually get a full eight hours sleep (we usually survive on naps). Instead of enjoying my full night of sleep last night, I got up at 0330 to watch the Pats beat the much ballyhooed Steelers, or at least the second half (hey, I needed to get SOME sleep). It was great to be able to watch The Pats game live (I think I even got a glimpse of my ex-Wesleyan football teammate and now Pats’ Secondary Coach Eric Mangini), particularly when your team wins the AFC Championship. Woo-hoo! I hoisted a glass of near-beer to the Pats, including past greats Grogan, Hannah, Tatupu, Nelson, etc.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Sharing Food

After First and Second Squads came back from their patrol, they were pretty psyched to have found and help destroy an IED (Improvised Explosive Device, aka ‘homemade bomb’) before someone could actually plant it. They found a 130mm Soviet artillery, all wired up with plastic explosive as a detonator and lacking only a nine-volt battery to set it all off. So they were pretty happy to have actually found something and help prevent someone or something from being endangered by it.

But it also meant that their patrol was much longer than planned. They probably woke a few hours after midnight and then had to wait some time for the ordinance disposal guys to show up and destroy the device. By the time they came back, the chow hall was closed and they were starving.

Pvt Armbruster said, "God, I wish I had some food somewhere."

I thought, ‘I have food. I have lots of food.’

So I grabbed a bunch of the Pop Tarts and granola bars that everyone had sent and just started offering them to the guys. Most were so hungry that they accepted both and I almost depleted my stock (but I was careful to save me some too). They were so hungry that when I offered the stuff to them, usually their eyes bugged out and they said, "YEAH, thanks Chesak!" I heard this about a dozen times. Very cool that I was able to spread around all the good will and generosity of everyone who sent a care package within my platoon.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Chris' article in Idaho Statesman

On Tuesday, January 11, the Idaho Statesman published an article written by Chris about Lillian's birth from his perspective, with a photo of Sally and Lillian and another one of just Lillian. Hopefully this link will work for awhile and you can access the article. The article is called "Half a world away, a soldier listens to his first-born's birth."

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Passing the Time

During one day on guard duty, I help out guarding one of the main gates. There are some big heavy arm gates (two, then a huge cable) that’s sort of far out away from the entrance area, far enough out that bomber’s blast wouldn’t affect too much. But there is no actual gate, just a tank blocking the portcullis where a gate would be, which sends a pretty strong message to all the folks driving down the main road in front of the gate. Most of the guys here are, understandably, are all about sending such a message, constantly saying in word, deed, and body language, ‘Don’t mess with us. If you do so, we’ll come down hard on you, so just don’t mess with us.’ This is of course entirely understandable but not exactly winning regular Joe-Iraqi over with friendliness or anything.

So the other day I was sitting up on the tank, manning a big ole’ .50 caliber ‘heavy machine gun,’ when I just started waving to some of the passing traffic, just looking for cars that passed by with kids in them. Just about everyone stares as they go by, trying to see what the Americans are doing and whatnot. So I just start waving once in a while.

The adults don’t wave back but everyone once in a while, I’d see a little head of black hair suddenly bob up, a little hand would start waving franticly, and the face would turn back and forth, usually to the mom (women generally are made to sit in the back seat as the front is for men only), then back again, waving away. I could imagine the kids saying, ‘Mama, mama, the American waved at me!’ It happened about 10 times or so that I actually got a wave back from the kids (maybe twice from adults) and it made me crack up each time. Hey, it’s positive and definitely a way to pass the time!

When Specialist Wilson and I are on guard duty together, we make a game of it: one point for every kid who waves, two points for a woman, four points if we can get one of the usually very stoic men to wave back (without cursing us in the process).


My original intent in joining the Guard was to as quickly as possible go to Officer’s Candidate School, ‘do not pass Go, do not collect $200.’ However, things didn’t work out that way and I now find myself a 34-year old, college educated Specialist. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. (FYI, the Army no longer has a direct officer commission program, except for a few very select jobs, for those that join outside of an ROTC program.) On the bad side, I’m basically a ‘full-bird private.’ So I get stuck with details like picking up cigarette butts around the tent and have to pull guard duty regularly, which is sort of sucky (albeit certainly necessary) work. I have little say in anything and often feel like my brain is going to waste, softening as it stews in its own juices.

But there’s definitely a good side. First of all, having just joined, I don’t know crud about how things work around here, but I’m learning (although I do wish that learning curve could be sped up about tenfold). I can’t imagine just showing up one day, a newly minted officer right out of OCS, and trying to then command privates and sergeants who have more time (some with MUCH more time in both the active duty army and/or the Guard) in than I do. So I’m building a good knowledge base, albeit slowly and in between picking up lots of cigarette butts.

Both our squad leader and the company’s commanding officer know about my situation though and have been very supportive and encouraging. Hopefully I’ll submit my OCS application soon, will be accepted (hopefully) in April ‘06, and attend OCS sometime in May/June. Then, as an officer, I’ll have a much better idea of what enlisted guys go through and how best to take care of them.

The Idaho Statesman

I’ve been talking to an editor at The Idaho Statesman and they’re really interested in running regular ‘soldier’s eye view’ type stories from me. I’m pretty excited about the opportunity to directly tell some of our tales to all the families and friends back home in Idaho. I was also excited to see just how supportive my whole chain of command was here. Everyone up to my Commanding Officer was very excited about it. Things got a little more tricky when we all found out that things needed to be reviewed at a much higher level, up to a Lt. Colonel and then finally the 116th’s commander, a two-star general. Yikes. But they all reviewed the first story, which was about Lilli’s birth, and hardly made a change. That story, with a photo of Sally and Lilli, should hopefully run soon. Another article is already in the works, although the chain of command might look more closely at this and future articles, as they will focus more on our daily lives.

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