- Name: Chris Chesak
Sunday, April 17, 2005
A few members of Chris’ platoon pose before the climbing wall. From the left: Chris (duh) with his SAW, Sgt. Carter (Military Policeman from Boise), Spc Escheverria (infantryman from Southern California), SPC Beans (partially obscured - infantryman from California), Spc Cole (with eyes shut - tanker from Boise), Spc Smith (cavalry scout from Boise), Spc Wing (in blue t-shirt - former Marine sniper from Boise), Spc McFarland (with Beretta pistol – tanker from Boise), Spc Wilson (mortarman from Kerry, Idaho). Smith and Escheverria carry M-4 carbines with the M203 grenade launcher (the long, ridged tube) attached underneath the barrel.
A Good Day
After a while, we noticed quite a few more gunshots in the distance than usual, most of them automatic, and a lot of car horns. When Alpha came back from their patrol, they said the Iraqi assembly (the one voted into office while we were down south) had appointed an interim-President and that he was a Kurd. The city’s Kurdish population was in total celebration. The returning patrollers told us that every Kurd had taken to the streets, was firing off ‘celebratory fire’ from their AK-47’s (and yes, those rounds do come back down to earth eventually), shooting off fireworks, and generally going nuts.
Considering that within about four years they had gone from repressed minority that was being systematically killed off to having one of their own as President, celebration was definitely in order.
Just a few days before, I was over at the KRAB (Kirkuk Regional Air Base) where we had taken all of our interpreters from our patrol base to be paid and to get their monthly trip to the PX in. I struck up a conversation with ‘Frodo’ (all of our ‘terps are given Americanized names, like Sonny or Ben, that roughly equate to their real names to make it easier for us to remember their names). He told me how much the Kurds liked having the Americans here, "More than you even know," he told me. When I asked him what he meant, he said that many Kurds continuously pray for our safety, even to the point of asking Allah that if something was to happen, that it happen to them rather than an "American boy who has come so far over here to help them." Frodo then told me about Saddam’s attempt at "Arabificatioin" of Kirkuk, how he kicked families out of 6,000 homes in the city for Arabs to move into, tried to obliterate entire Kurd villages (in some cases succeeding and even using chemical weapons to do so) and how he killed more than 80,000 Kurds… in one month. Frodo said that no Kurd in Kirkuk had not felt the sting of this methodical program, everyone here having lost a brother, aunt, cousin, or friend, if not their father or a child. So, with a Kurd becoming their country’s first self-appointed leader, it was cause for jubilation.
We of course were happy to stay in our base and just know that the Kurds were so happy. But, just before dinner, our company commander decided that we all needed to roll out. Word came down that he allegedly said he was, "tired of all this gunfire," but the military is notorious for things getting distorted as they filter on down the many levels of the chain (in effect becoming huge games of ‘telephone’). Regardless, we geared up and rolled out, grumbling (as soldiers so often do) about the fact that we had to go patrol. I argued that we should be doing the exact opposite and pull in all our patrols to get out of the way of the celebration and to minimize our visibility during what should be an entirely Kurdish celebration. Others said that we should actually join in the celebrating with our Kurdish allies.
Regardless of our gripes, we rolled out into sector and soon found ourselves in the midst of a traffic jam of honking, flag-draped, Kurd-filled cars. The Kurdish flag, which is red, white, and green bars with a yellow sun in the center, was everywhere, and cars, people, and buildings were suddenly festooned with green banners, ribbons, flowers, sheets, headbands, any just about anything else they could find. (For some reason, the Kurds use that one color from their flag as ‘their’ color. The Turkoman’s color, by contrast, is a lighter blue.) We saw one moped that was so top heavy with green flags, paper flowers, streamers, and just about anything else green that the guy could find, we were surprised he didn’t just topple over. Everyone waved, smiled, cheered, and often offered us thanks in the Middle Eastern manner of putting their hands over their hearts and bowing their heads. And, for the first time since I’ve been here, the Iraqis were throwing candy at US, instead of th e other way around.
We stopped at the first traffic circle we could find (traffic lights being in short supply here, there are many circles all over the country) and dismounted when we heard the first (of MANY) close gunshots, a quick burst from an AK-47 that was nothing more than celebratory. By the time we dismounted, identified a general direction that the fire came from, and reached that point, the firer and/or the weapon were long gone. (As a general rule, we’re supposed to confiscate any such weapon, even if just shot off for celebration, or any weapon not kept in the home and only for home defense.)
As I stood near the rear of one Humvee, people came up to me, thanked me, said in pidgin English that it was "a great day, a very great day" and took our picture, usually with cheap disposable cameras or camera cell phones (another new technology that, like the Internet and satellite phones, is only about three years old to these people). One young guy pressed a big green flag into my hand and took my picture. Another one kept asking me to fire my SAW off into the air in celebration. I think he asked in jest, knowing that we couldn’t do such a thing. Regardless, I smiled and laughed but let him know I’d do no such thing.
As we remounted the vehicles and drove off to another sector of the city, our opinions of having to roll out reversed. We all spoke about the fact that we were happy to have been called out, happy to see this celebration of such a once-downtrodden people.
We drove on to another traffic circle, this one just across the river. It was another logjam of vehicles, people standing around, and just another general massive celebration. However, I quickly spotted a man moving toward the lead Humvee with a pistol in his hand and called out, just as others in our truck did the same. We dismounted and the lead element quickly restrained the man. We soon found out that he was an off-duty Iraqi cop though so we let him go, with his pistol.
Sgt Stewart and I were on the far side of our Humvee when we saw a wonderful thing: beer. Now, unlike most Islamic countries, alcohol is legal here. Our base is surrounded by several small liquor stores, all advertising Efes or Tuborg beer, and we pass them routinely, which adds to our depression. You see, we aren’t allowed any kind of beer, or other alcohol, at any time, in any way. And the guys drinking this beer offered us some. We could have said yes. No one else was around. It would just be a sip, a sip of cold, refreshing, tasty beer. But that part of the day was so sad as Stew and I, reluctantly, sadly, with broken hearts and tears in our eyes, said no. We’re still second-guessing that decision, one that many other in the platoon had to make at various points during the night.
As I stood guard over the Humvee, lamenting our lack of beer, I made eye contact with a pretty Iraqi girl who was several feet back into the crowd. I smiled and nodded, and she did the same back. Normally, the women here are very coquettish and quickly look away. It’s testament to the Kurds’ joy and exuberance that she not only didn’t look away but soon thereafter, as I was handing out more candy to more kids, she quickly came up to me and, in the midst of hundreds of people, asked me my name and then told me hers. She smiled, I smiled and then she retreated back into the crowd. [Right about now, Sally is reading this going, "What the hell?" but I mention it only to show that these people were SO happy that some of the women even broke long-standing cultural lines to speak to us, some even kissing a few of the guys in the platoon later on.]
Soon we were back into the trucks, driving onto another sector, and the change couldn’t have been more extreme. This being a Turkoman neighborhood, it was almost totally quite, just another Wednesday evening, perhaps even quieter. The people here were still just working, finishing up a day’s labor, and slowly starting to head home for the evening. There was no celebration here, just business as usual, perhaps slightly quieter even, their neighborhood banners of blue crescent moons on a white background just hung solemnly above our Humvees as we drove along. (On, yet another, aside: when I see these neighborhoods, all with their own colors, flags, and traditions, I can’t help but wonder how they equate to Irish, Italian, or Jewish neighborhoods in turn-of-the-century Boston or New York.)
A few blocks later though, it was another rollicking street party. Much of the night was like this, a stark contrast between almost silent neighborhoods and full-blown street parties with gunfire, kissing girls, beaming kids, more Iraqi candy thrown our way, fireworks, green everywhere, and just general near-euphoria. Then we’d drive six or ten blocks down the road and it would be utterly silent.
We enter another Kurdish neighborhood, one running along a main road that parallels the river. We stop several times in futile attempts to track down more celebratory gunfire. We stop one time near a family who is sitting out on their taxi, watching the slow, honking, yelling procession up and down the divided ‘highway’. I reach into my backpack, now carefully set up with ammo and water in the big pocket, small toys in the medium pocket, and the smaller pocket full of candy. I return with five pieces of candy, handing one each to each kid and the father says several times, "Thank you mistah. Vetty good, thank you." I go back to guarding the Humvee, trying to discern between fireworks and gunfire, red tracers streaming into the night and roman candles doing the same. I look back at the kids, reach back into the backpack and approach them again with five toys, small fire trucks, some small stuffed animals for the girls, a Burger King toy from The Incredibles movie, etc. Their father again spits out thank you’s and "Vetty good," as the kids beam with excitement.
In between all this, my photo is taken again, this time by a street vendor selling Kurdish flags, ones on a plastic rod with a clip at the end, just like the kind they sell with New England Patriots (your world champion New England Patriots by the way) flags to attach to your car window. He presses one into my hand saying, "This for you. Very good day, today is very good day. George Bush good, very good!" He says he is also in the Iraqi Army, that he was Peshmerga (a paramilitary force of Kurds that used to fight Saddam and is now sort of a Kurdish ‘Special Forces,’ or more like a Kurdish retribution force.)
A family squeezed into the cab of a semi throws me more candy as a young lawyer and ex-interpreter named "Jeff" (who I’d met once before on our base and who echoed the sentiment we often hear about how much he’d rather work with the National Guardsmen rather than active duty – but that’s another story) beamed with pride, exclaiming, "This is a historic day, a very good day. We have gone in three years from being no one here, in this country, to being in charge!" Although they really aren’t in charge, you can imagine at least the symbolic importance of having as a "President" one of their own people.
But soon thereafter, we spot several streams of tracers from the opposite river bank. We rush over, fighting through all the traffic (we always have the right of way here, both because the cops always let us through, we demand it for a variety of safety and tactical reasons, and because we drive six-ton armored Humvees with battering-ram bumpers and heavy machine guns mounted on them), over to where we saw the tracers. The tracers are gone, now replaced by more back on the other side of the river, from where we just came. Hey, they aren’t dummies. ‘The Americans are here, trying to take away our guns for using them to celebrate? Okay, hide the guns. [Whistle, look around nonchalantly, whistle some more.] They’re gone? Free fire party!’ And yes, those bullets do come down, sometime, somewhere. (One of our ‘terps, "Ram," was late for work the next day as a round came down through his car windshield while it was parked outside his house.)
Frustrated (or ambivalent as most of us don’t want to have to confiscate anyone’s AK-47 or stop their party), we stop for a "Class One Download". "Class One’ is water (and food) so when we’re downloading it… that’s right, we’re going to the bathroom. Hey, it was a long night. I stood there, watering the Humvee tires, watching surprisingly slow, beautifully streaming lines of red AK-47 tracers trailing off from the far river bank into the night, just enjoying the view.
(Okay so this is a long blog entry, but hold on. We’re almost done.)
We drive past some of the first traffic circles we started at and the party is definitely dying down. There are far fewer cars out now so we can drive pretty freely throughout the city, until we come to one more Kurdish neighborhood, where most of the party apparently moved to. Several blocks of city are just slammed, almost wall-to-wall with people still celebrating, mostly men (it’s always mostly men as the women are so often relegated to just staying at home). It looks like Mardi Gras. Through a gap in the armor behind my head, I stick out my Kurdish flag and there is a surge of yells and cheers from the hordes of people around us. I pull it in and they get quieter… stick it out and hear another roar… pull it in and it gets quiet… out again for another roar. It’s like something from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In the Humvee ahead of us, SPC Flemming (former-Marine embassy guard, Gulf War vet, postal worker, father of three) is sitting in the gunners turret, waving, smiling, blo wing kisses back at the girls. I say to everyone in my Humvee, "Tonight the roll of conquering hero will be played by… Specialist Flemming."
Finally, we can’t drive much further as the crowds are too thick. We stop and dismount and we’re swarmed with friendly faces. Again more photos, again I raise my Kurdish flag and get a roar and more photos, then a Kurd approaches me with a big green flag, rips off a strip, and offers it to me. I try to wrap it around my helmet (while the helmet is still on off course, as I’m not about to do something like take it off – ever – while in sector) and sort of succeed, momentarily. There’s another roar from the crowd, then more photos (always with the very touchy Iraqi men who are never afraid to throw an arm around your shoulders). Then we push some of the crowd back and the Humvees creep up a little, until coming to a stop (often as a child ran out right in front of the lead vehicle). I wrap the strip of green around my SAW stock and the crowd erupts, from the back of the Humvee this time. Apparently Sgt. Dmitrov, our squad leader, did the same with a strip of green material but then also started dancing with some of the men there, the dance being nothing more than raising your arms and sort of stepping side to side. There’s another roar from just in front of me as Sgt. Stewart does the same. Everyone settles down, we push back the crowd, the Humvees creep, we stop and dance or get another photo taken, move the vehicles a bit, stop, and then eventually emerge from the end of the street party, popping out of the crowds like six-ton, armored Humvee corks.
Finally we return back to our patrol base. We’re physically wiped because the simple act of mounting and dismounting into and out of the vehicles so often, with all our gear on (35 lbs of body armor, six lb Kevlar helmet, 17 lb SAW, 21 lbs of SAW ammo (and that’s about 1/3 a combat load since I can carry the rest in the truck), night vision monocle and mount, various pouches, a knife, flashlight, first aid pouch and bandage, etc.), not to mention occasionally running toward AK-47 fire, pushing back crowds, trying to be gregarious and nice while also scanning four-, five-, ten-deep into a crowd and/or along rooftops, cringing when fireworks are blown too close to the Humvee and for a split second you’re not quite sure what it was, trying to fight through hordes of aggressive boys to get a piece of candy or a toy into the hands of a little girl at the back of the mob, and just generally having your senses wired on level ten for several hours, takes its toll.
But we’re also happy, even though we didn’t confiscate a single weapon, didn’t stop anyone from shooting into the air, and generally didn’t do too much. Because we didn’t care about that stuff. We were happy to have seen a people, once who wondered how they could even survive or if their children would even reach adulthood, much less have a good, peaceful life, infused with so much pride, honor, dignity, validation, and absolute joy all in one night.
While I definitely do not agree with the way that we, as a nation, were brought into this conflict (Saddam had no connection to the 9/11 terrorists and were where those WMD’s again?), I am overjoyed to see something so good come of it. Let us all hope that I, and my daughter, and those daughters of that taxi driver that I gave some simple little toys to, see a lot more good come of this over the months and decades to come.
Saturday, April 09, 2005
A Toy Story
While patrolling, we stopped along a street corner and my vehicle ended up being right on the corner. I opened the door to step out of my sauna and cool down. When I got out, I saw three women and several kids, all gathered just outside their home to watch the Americans rolling through (we’re often the ‘big show’ when we roll through a neighborhood, particularly ones that aren’t patrolled that often, with kids running after our vehicles, women coquettishly peeking out from gaps in their doorways, etc.). I reached back into the Humvee, into my rucksack.
Inside was a slew of toys sent from friends in care packages (thank you Chris Wernert and John and Lyn Burton!). I grabbed some stuffed animals for the girls and some toy cars for the boys, then turned toward the kids with my hands behind my back. I stepped (probably too quickly) toward the oldest girl, who was perhaps ten or twelve. Her big brown eyes bugged out and she quickly stepped back from this foreign, tall, helmeted, armored guy who was covered in pouches filled with ammo and other crud who was suddenly approaching her.
Then I pulled a stuffed bunny out from behind my back.
Her eyes got, surprisingly, even LARGER and her whole face just absolutely lit up. She looked back at me as if to say, ‘For me!?!?’ I gave her the bunny and she about melted, clutching it to her chest, then turned to her mom, who’s eyes were just about as bugged out in joy. I then distributed the cars and other stuffed animals to the other kids, returning to the rucksack to get a few more, ensuring that all six got at least one toy. I wish you could have seen the looks on these kids faces, as just the joy and excitement are just so sincere, almost explosive or wild, and in that way almost sometimes rather sad, or perhaps more specifically nearly heart-breaking. These kids have so little. I’ve seen four and five year olds play ‘car’ with an actual old car tire, others trying to push each other on a half-melted plastic tricycle with no rear wheels. When they receive one little toy car or a nice new, clean, fire-resistant, happy stuffed animal, they are truly ecstatic.
Freedom… or Lack Thereof
Erin Byerly from Boulder Colo. asks (sorry, just had to write it like that, as if it were a letter to Zoom or some other kid’s program): "I assume you get time off--is it regularly scheduled days off? What do you do with your time off? Get to travel about any or are you restricted to your base?"
We do NOT get any regularly scheduled days off just some days end up being sort of off (but never really, there is always at least some little detail to pull, a machine gun to clean, and at least other piddly stuff). It’s tough because you can run for a couple of days straight and the day that looks like it might be off, suddenly some report of bad guys comes in and you’re back in the body armor, running for the Humvees, and spending sometimes an entire night out cruising around.
Here’s an example: we work on a nine day schedule (and we usually don’t even realize what day of the week it is, except when all the Mormon guys suddenly leave for a while we know it’s Sunday). Our week is broken up into three days of guard duty, three days of day patrols and ‘logistic package’ (runs to the big air base to get breakfast or dinner, fuel, drop off our trash, etc.), and three days of QRF (Quick Reaction Force – just generally waiting around, being ‘ready’ in case anything happens), which also includes night missions.
The other day (it turned out to be Easter actually, but who here knew?) we had a patrol scheduled but another squad was short a few guys so me and SPC Smith had to go with them on an earlier dismounted (walking) patrol to the market and up to the Citadel, a 5,000 year old sort of castle which was mostly destroyed by Saddam and is also the home of Daniel’s tomb. (This patrol was the one we had the Statesman reporters with us and was featured in their online photos.) So Smith and I walk around with all our gear for three hours, return to base, grab a sandwich, hop into Humvees, go out on our regular mission for a few hours, come back, take a nap, settle in for the night and get ready for bed when we were called out again.
The regular QRF had already been called out so we were all that was left and had to go. That ended up being several hours of patrolling a neighborhood, doing a ‘cordon and knock’ (setting a perimeter around the neighborhood and knocking on doors to ask people for info) looking for two trucks that might have shot a few mortar rounds at the KRAB (Kirkuk Regional Air Base – I apparently can say the name of where we are now, since it’s all over the Idaho Statesman). We got back here about 0200. Our squad then went to bed for a nap, getting back up at 0430 because we were scheduled to have the morning logpac run to get breakfast. During that run to the KRAB, we missed a State Dept person that we were supposed to escort and so had to then run back to the KRAB to get them. Best still, we were scheduled for ANOTHER patrol just an hour after we got back.
Luckily, the higher ups realized we were just toast and sent another squad. Then a big vehicle-born IED went off less than a kilometer from here and they now needed more bodies so a few of our guys had the displeasure of having to roll out with them, yet AGAIN (luckily I was… ah… ‘indisposed’ in the latrine when all this came down). Sound like fun? Of course not, but that’s an extreme example and certainly not our average days. On the plus side, the past few days have had very little missions, and we’ve spent the time finishing up the climbing wall, adding holds for new routes, and climbing, while I’ve also been able to catch-up on some emailing.
And we do not get to leave the base, other than for patrols and other missions. In that sense, this place can sort of feel like a prison, concrete walls, barbed wire, exercise ‘yard’ and all. But we’re much luckier than the majority of the people stationed here. These people are what we generally call POG’s (Person Other than Grunt – essentially anyone who serves in a non-combat arms role or support mission here) and they are everyone from chow hall guys to people who work in the headquarters doing reports all day, finance or legal people, etc. They are all stationed at the KRAB and about 80% of them NEVER leave that base. They’re going to spend a year here and will never see anything of this country other than that one US base. Safe as that might be, that just – in my mind – would totally suck. And we do occasionally fantasize about taking a few Humvees out into the hills, splitting the group into to, and having one group pull security while the other goes climbing. Ah, if only…
And it looks like I might be getting leave at the end of this month! Fingers crossed…
Updated Care Package List
• Low fat soy milk (so I can eat all the cereal that we have here)
• Nonperishable ethnic food that you can make in a microwave or with hot water (I’m craving Chinese, Thai, Indian, etc., but no spicy stuff please)
• Condiments like BBQ sauce, salsa, garlic powder, peanut butter, etc.
• Luna bars (Key Lime Pie, Peppermint Stick, Dulce de Leche, Carmel Apple, S’mores, Lemon Zest, etc.) or Nature Valley granola bars (Peanut Butter is always a favorite but others are good too)
• Plastic-sealed summer sausage, turkey or salmon jerkey, cans of tuna
• DVD’s – science fiction, light popular comedies, stand-up comedy, History Channel/PBS documentaries. Please don’t spend any real money though, just get used ones or those on sale. Better yet, send old ones you don’t like or don’t watch any more.
• Books on CD or downloadable books – I need ones I can load into my MP3 player. Again, please just get used ones, those on sale, or ‘recycle’ the ones you don’t want anymore. No need to spend any real dough.
• Laptop/weapons cleaning stuff (Q-tips, pipe cleaners, canned air, etc.)
• Lots of AA and some AAA batteries
• Stuff for Iraqi kids: individually wrapped candies (preferably heavier, throw-able stuff like Starbursts, Jolly Ranchers, Jaw Breakers, etc.), pens or pencils (clean out that jar of random pens in your kitchen!), toys (small ones that we can toss from vehicles), or even the occasional soccer ball
Things not to send:
• Lip balm (I’m LOADED with lip balm)
• Lotion (I’m loaded with that too)
• Books (I have a ton!)
• Plastic ziplock bags (ibid)
• Baby wipes (people sent us a TON of these, including one industrial-sized box)
• Disposable cameras – my dad and brother got me a digital camera!
• Calling cards – people have been super-generous and already sent quite a few. But we don’t have a phone system here that allows us to use them (doh!).