Monday, March 28, 2005

Chris' bunk, decorated with pictures from home, Ayer Middle School, and shelves of books. Posted by Hello

Statesman reporters in Iraq

Hi everyone - this is Sally. I wanted to let you know that the Idaho Statesman currently has a photographer and a reporter embedded with the 116th, so there are articles every day about the 116th and their activities. Chris is quoted in an article today saying Iraqi kids were trying to get him to give them his boots! You can check the Statesman's site to see all of the articles - here is the direct link:

Updated Wish List

Okay, so it’s a little weird for me to put this list out, as if I’m actually expecting people to send me stuff. And people have already been so kind and thoughtful – it’s been wonderful! But, if you are interested in helping feed me, and the lads, here are just some ideas:
• Summer sausage, turkey or salmon jerkey, cans of tuna
• Crackers (Triscuits, Wheat Thins, or Ritz are always good)
• Cookies (chocolate chip, peanut butter, Nutter Butters, Fig Newtons, etc.) or brownies – heck, any kind of baked good won’t go to waste around here
• Granola/breakfast bars like Nature Valley (Peanut Butter is always a favorite but others are good too)
• Luna bars (Key Lime Pie, Peppermint Stick, Dulce Duleche [sp?], Carmel Apple, S’mores, Lemon Zest, etc.)
• Individual drink boxes of low fat soy milk
• A little candy? (Snickers, Twizzlers, gummy bears or cola bottles, Lifesavers or Crème Savers)
• Trail mix like Target’s Monster Mix
• Cheap (old) DVD’s – classic movies (Raging Bull, 2001, etc.), light popular comedies, stand-up comedy, science fiction, History Channel/PBS documentaries, music videos.
• Cleaning stuff for laptop and weapons (especially Q-tips, pipe cleaners, canned air, etc.)
• AA and AAA batteries
• Bags of cheap candy (individually wrapped) or toys (small ones that we can toss from vehicles) for us to toss to Iraqi kids
Beer (yeah, I WISH…)

Happy Kurdish New Year!

A few nights ago we found out that it was the Kurdish New Year’s Eve. Of course it was a night that we were supposed to be ‘off’ (those times are becoming more and more rare, since they continue to add another patrol here, another detail there – all cutting into my precious emailin’ time) and of course we found all this out in the evening, as opposed to say – a few days before.

Somehow there’s a legend attached to the Kurdish New Year where there was an evil king here who was killing off everyone and their brother, apparently. Everyone talked about killing him but no one would actually do it until a brave blacksmith said he would. Once he was done with the deed, he would light a bonfire to let everyone know the king was dead. Once the bonfire appeared along the walls of the castle, the people rejoiced.

To this day, the Kurds continue to celebrate this moment in history with huge bonfires… usually now made with truck tires. Imagine huge, sometimes massive, piles of cooking, smoldering, melting, oozing rubber and the consequential black smoke that billows off these things. Oh and, as so many Middle Eastern folks do, they also celebrate with ‘celebratory gunfire,’ along with the occasional roman candle, which at night looks deceptively like tracer fire.

So we rolled out into all this (to be ready ‘just in case’ and to look out for any bad guys) but, luckily, the night was an otherwise quiet one and we spent the evening on the roof of a law school, chatting away, snacking on trail mix and bars, and trying to stave off the cold.

Watching distant bonfires and thinking about all the trash burning that goes on here (until the US arrived, there was apparently NO method of trash removal whatsoever), and watching all the usual and numerous refinery fires that keep the horizon a constant dull orange, I thought about what our medic told me. He said that after being deployed to Iraq, everyone in the military has their medical record marked ‘Significant Respiratory Exposure.’ Yeah, tell me about it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Art of Candy Tossing

Iraqi kids are aggressive. In this wide-open, almost Darwinian region, this is not surprising, since in this place you either take something for yourself or someone else does.

For example, one day on guard duty the most adorable little girl, probably around four years old and with pigtails, kept standing behind her wall and saying, "Hullo! What is your nam?" The next day, I came prepared with lollipops. The minute I held them up and pointed to them and then her, her eyes bugged out of her head and she started yelling for all her other friends. They all ran up to the base of the tower and I started to try to throw one each to each individual kid. Well, this little cutie suddenly became Ms. Aggressive Bossy, yelling at the other (larger) kids, pushing them out of the way, throwing hip-checks, grabbing as many Tootsie Roll lollipops as she could. When I came up one short and told (gestured really) her to give one of hers to the kid without one, she pretty much just ignored me and then tried to grab the last one that I found in my pocket and tried to throw to him (luckily he got it).

One day on patrol, I was in the gunner’s turret and loaded to the gills. I had a big ziplock baggie full of candies, a packet of these little spinning whistle things that our friend Jean (a school principal from Boise) gave me, along with two packets of little bendable monsters, also from Jean.

Our first stop was near a school located next to the site for a new clinic. We stopped so an officer could inspect the site for the groundbreaking ceremony. Soon our Humvees were mobbed with scores of boys (schools here are either segregated by sex, this one for boys only) who poured out of the school grounds and off the nearby soccer field. Immediately (and as always), they started asking for chocolate ("Mistah, mistah, shock-o-lat?"), food ("Mistah, fud?"), watches, MRE meals, cameras, and anything else they could see on our vests or inside the Humvees. As always, I kept saying ‘no,’ while also trying to chat and ask them their names and make broken, gesticulating attempts at small talk.

While they horded around the officer, I turned and yelled to the gunner in the truck behind me, "Hey Wilson, when we pull out, let’s toss some candy, okay?"

SPC Wilson, who was armed with his own bag of candy, replied, "Yeah, but not now, not until we pull out."

Knowing the mayhem that would ensue, I completely agreed. When we finally started to pull out, we whipped out the bags and started chucking handfuls of the stuff off to our right, into the throng. There was a sort of collective scream/yell and the race was on. As we bumped along, leaving the school, masses of boys ran along side, clamoring for the candies Wilson and I were launching out of the turrets. Unfortunately though, we took two more right turns, almost back into the mob, finally just accelerating away from the sprinting, wild-eyed kids.

The next stop was on a side street and I was able to give the whistles to SPC Shriver, who was dismounted on the ground, and he could hand them out in threes and fours to passing kids. They were nice enough to stop for a picture too.

The last stop for the day was to link up with some local police at their station. Our Humvee was parked on the other side of a barricade, and soon there were 4-5 boys on the other side, asking me the usual questions. Generally, their questions are (in order): Mistah, what’s yor nam? [I tell them my name and they attempt to repeat it.] Klis? Klris? [Pause, look up and down the road, confer with friends, pause… look back at me.] Mistah, give me chocolate. Mistah, give me food. Mistah, where are you from? [I say Idaho and they look at me, puzzled.] Mistah, give me money. Chocolate? Money? What is that [glasses, flashlight, whatever]? Give me.

I did my usual parry to their requests, which gets tiresome at times because a group will approach, ask you the usual questions seventeen times each, finally get tired and just move on down the line to the next Humvee. Then a new group of kids (almost always boys) will appear and the process starts all over again, to be repeated sometimes several times, with the same groups actually coming back again and again, with the exact same questions. (I credit one kid on this particular day as he at least had a new one: Mistah, you give me Atari?)

I kept telling them no, until we started to pull out. Then I grabbed my bag, the monster toys started to fly and the melee ensued, kids pouring out of everywhere. My mistake, was again not knowing our path out. As they kids started to swarm, we slowly serpentined out of the parking lot, swaying back and forth between large earthen barriers, and again we turned right, back toward the kids. I put the bag of monsters down and turned traffic cop, shoeing kids away from right in front of our vehicle and/or right up against our very large tires.

Kids, and people in general, here in no way have our kind of regard for safety and aren’t afraid to push the limits of their personal safety in order to get something that we throw (some kids in country have been killed by being pushed into U.S. vehicles). Because of this, we have to be very careful when and how we distribute goodies to the kids.

Regardless of that, the look on these kids faces, kids that have to little, when they realize that the candy or toy in your hand is for them, is just amazing (and perhaps a little sad too). Their eyes just about bulge out of their face, in a look of both total excitement, joy, and perhaps a little bit of desperation. After all, as an Iraqi kid, you’ve got to be quick. Here, you never know when a little four-year old cutie in pigtails might just hip-check you like an NHL defenseman out of contention for that Tootsie Roll.

Friday, March 11, 2005

The Mighty Thor

So the other night I was standing in a guard tower, when I hear a lot of rustling in the grass below. After a while of some thrashing about, this little white and brown puppy popped out of the grass. I climbed down the ladder and tried to call him over. I made the kissy sort of noise and he came close enough for me to see that this wiry little guy with a bloated belly had no ears, just cavities where what were supposed to be floppy ears are supposed to be. I tried to feed him what I had in my pocket, which was only a breakfast bar, and he ate that and also nibbled on some angel food cake that some one had dropped (that can’t be good for him). But he finally just yapped at me and then ran away.

I didn’t see him again that night but suddenly I saw last night that the HQ guys were suddenly taking care of him. They put out some water, a blanket for him, and gave him some food. Now his name is Thor, although I want to call him Van Gogh, because of his ears.

Now, we’re by no means allowed to have a dog here as the folks at battalion would be pissed. They have to tell us this, that we can’t have a dog, because if someone were to catch something from one, or get rabies or something (mind you, this county is full of totally wild dogs and has very few veterinarians, even if people could afford one), they would be responsible. So we don’t have a dog, just a new ‘interpreter.’ Latest word now was that the pup will have to go away yesterday but today I was happy to hear his little raspy, high-pitched RUH-RUH-RUH sort of bark. And of course he’s just one dog in a nation full of strays but still, why not find a more proactive and positive solution, like sending over one of the Army’s veterinarians to just make sure he’s healthy and then move on.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Armored Humvees and Trucks

Recently I’ve gotten a few questions about our Humvees here and if they are armored or not. All of the ones we have are armored, but some better than others.

We have a few of the new M1114 Humvees and this vehicle is, to quote one guy here, "one tough truck." It’s completely armored and designed from the ground up to be armored so it has a beefier suspension, stronger engine, and a nice, tight armored compartment. It also has some other nice features like spring-loaded bullet-proof windows, better heating/AC, and is just a much nicer ride. There are numerous tales of these vehicles taking a direct hit from a large IED and getting the entire front of the vehicle, including the engine, nearly sheered off by the explosion, while the entire crew walks away unscathed.

The other Humvees are regular trucks with armor kits added to them. The nomenclature is specific and sometimes rather funny. For example, the difference between the M1025 and the M1026 up-armored Humvees is whether it has a winch or not. We have a couple more of these vehicles, which suffer somewhat from an overloaded suspension, not as much engine power as we’d like, some minor and breezy gaps between armor plates, not-as-nice porthole-like bullet-proof windows, etc. In short, they’re just not as nice a ride. Both the 1114’s and the 1025’s have a rotating turret in the roof with a mount for a machinegun.

We also have a couple of ‘El Camino’ Humvees, trucks configured like a pick up (or more like the old El Camino car/truck things) with a cab for two and a bed in the back. There is armor around the bed (which usually carries 4-6 dismounting troops) up to four feet high. While the armor around the cab is another kit, the armor around the bed is what we call ‘hillbilly armor,’ metal plates bolted, welded, sometimes zip-tied, or just slid on. It’s not pretty, but it’s steel plate and it does the trick.

For all the talk about a lack of armored Humvees, the Army has done a good job of getting as many of them armored as possible. If you read the excellent book Generation Kill, you will read about Recon Marines who are leading the ground war into Iraq, often into intense fighting, with no armor on their Humvee at all. At that time there were few of the vehicles available but now no patrol leaves a base without some sort of armor on their Humvees.

A bigger issue is armoring actual trucks trucks. Many more five-ton and LMTV flatbed trucks roll out the gates without any armor on them at all, yet. None of our trucks have armor on them, although we use them only occasionally to pick up supplies from the main base in our area. The Army is working to fix this problem too.

A more demoralizing and frustrating issue is the number of ‘POG’s’ (Person Other than Grunt, someone who works as a clerk or warehouse person or does some duty that never requires them to roll off of the big base) that have nice, new 1114’s over at the base, which never leave there. Our first sergeant is working hard to work with our chain of command to correct this oversight. The new, better armored vehicles clearly need to be with the combat arms guys (us) in the field, rather than carting some field-grade officer around an air force base to/from the PX.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Leave time and R&R

Several folks have been asking if I get leave. I do get two weeks, plus another four days of R&R.

The good thing about leave is that it’s guaranteed a FULL two weeks at home. The clock doesn’t start ticking until midnight of the day that I actually land back in Boise. This means that, depending on flight schedules and when I first touch down in the States at either Atlanta or Dalls and when I actually arrive in Boise, I might actually get up to almost 16 days at home. Plus you add in all the travel time on the front- and back-side and it means that I’ll spend almost three weeks not here.

I originally requested leave in July (it gets a little hot here then, you know). But Sally and I decided that we just need to see each other (and I need to finally meet Lilli) before then. So I’ve put in for the first available date and we hope that I might get to come home in April.

I might also get the four days R&R during April too. That time is spent in the region, either at a U.S. base farther north in Iraq or possibly Qatar. During this time you are allowed three beers per night and apparently they have some field trips to do. Rumor has it that if you get to go to Qatar, you also are allowed to leave base (with an escort) and go to bars, malls, etc. With travel time, the R&R is often almost eight days not here. So it should be a good April for me!

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