Friday, May 27, 2005

Chemical Ali's Palace

The only other patrol base in town, the home of Echo Troop from Montana, was located in ‘Chemical Ali’s’ old summer home. Ali earned his nickname being the one responsible for gassing thousands of innocent Kurds in the 90’s, using chemical weapons. As they were moving out, we had the opportunity to guard their base (lots of fun), which sometimes meant sitting for eight hours in a shed-sized rooftop bunker (or ‘observation post’) alone in the middle of the night.

After a few days of pulling late-night guard duty there, we returned to our own patrol base to… you guessed it, pull late-night guard duty here! Fun! Yeah… wait, didn’t I go to college? Can I go to Officer’s Candidate School yet? (I’m in the process of applying now.) The place, often called a palace, was certainly not palatial by our standards, but was definitely much more ornate and massive compared to most Iraqi homes.
Posted by Hello


I just had to include a shot of the region’s preferred toilet. While we sit and wipe with TP, most folks here squat and wipe with their left hand. Often we have Pakistani guys working in our chow halls and when they see a sit-down toilet, usually in a port-a-john, they don’t quite know what to do. They usually end up standing up on the toilet seat and squatting from up there. Unfortunately while in this awkward position, their aim isn’t the best… Yeesh. Posted by Hello

Inside of palace Posted by Hello

Inside of palace Posted by Hello

Capital Improvements

Here’s a shot of my new ‘berth’. A couple of the upper bunk guys added a plywood roof above their bunks and we’ve almost all now added the drawback blanket, giving each of us a little box to live in that reminds me of old fashioned sleeping berths on ships or trains. It adds some privacy, and helps block out light and noise from other squads. More importantly for me, we finally got our squad’s AC unit up and running which not only makes it cooler but provides me with a big ole’ box of ‘white noise’ right by my head. Currently we’re all sleeping a little better now. Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Care Packages

I can’t thank enough EVERYONE who’s already sent a care package!!! They are a huge morale boost, a great way for us all to eat non-army food, and the snacks are perfect for late-night guard duty. People continue to ask what they can send but please don’t go out of your way or spend too much money or anything. If you do want to send something, here are some things that we could use:
• Low fat soy milk (so I can eat all the cereal that we have here) – very
important to my happiness and well being here
• Individual packets of drink mixes (ice tea, fruit punch, etc.). I think
the guys like sugar-free but I prefer the full-on sugar varieties. These go
into our water bottles for patrols and guard duty.
• Peanut butter and peanut butter and crackers packages
• Luna bars (Key Lime Pie, Peppermint Stick, Dulce de Leche, S’mores, Lemon
• Bite-sized snickers bars for the lads here – they love ‘em
• Popular movie DVD’s (for the guys – Caddy Shack, The Siege, Rocketman) and
artsy, independent, Independent Film Channel/ Sundance/Cannes-type movie
DVD’s (for me – Bottle Rocket, Whale Rider). 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.
• 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 a soccer ball
• Surprise us. Life here is pretty routine. It’s certainly not dull or
boring but is sort of the same thing over and over again. So go crazy, send
some new entrée or lunch thing (no red meat please though), different types
of cookies, and just generally different stuff. Don’t worry about sending
the ‘wrong’ thing because while I won’t eat pecan sandies or oysters in oil,
I certainly know guys that will.
• Oh, and we’re good on tuna thank you! We’ve been swamped with it and
currently have 59 cans/packets on our shelf. We love it and it makes great
sandwiches (hell, we probably need more mayo and relish now) but we’re good
on it and still have more on the way.

Time Left in Country… Hopefully

Many people have asked how much longer we’ll be here. We’ve been told that we will be completely done and back home "Definitely by Christmas, possibly by Thanksgiving." I believe I might actually be back in Boise by Halloween, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

The process of leaving will be a slow one. Since we live out on a patrol base, we’ll first have to close down the base in early fall (the unit relieving us, an element of the 101st Air Assault is not taking over this base as part of the effort to start to pull back on US presence in the region), go live at the KRAB for X weeks (hopefully weeks and not months), shuttle down to Kuwait and stay there for X weeks, fly back to the US to a base to ‘de-mobilize’ at, and then finally back to Boise. Of course we’ve been told that we will be one of the last units to leave here, but that just didn’t surprise us, since we tend to get the short end of the stick.

The ‘de-mob’ process could last between 10-30 days and includes things like exit interviews, turning in lots of gear, mental health issues, and surely a ridiculous amount of briefings. We’ve been told that this could occur at Ft. Lewis, Wash., Ft. Carson, Colo., or possibly back at Ft. Bliss, Texas. Most of the guys are pulling for Ft. Lewis, since it’s closest to home.

Real Internet at Last!

It’s been months in the making and very much anticipated, but the real, wireless Internet is finally here! For a somewhat spendy fee, we have a wireless router in our platoon area and most of the guys have access to the Internet right from their laptops. The guy who set this all up, an American contractor, of course finally came while I was on leave so I have to wait until he comes back again to sign up. Regardless, I can now hop on a friend’s laptop and email you all right from my bunk now.

Tanker No More

We got the official word a few weeks ago that our unit will no longer be a cavalry unit (meaning, for the most part, no more tanks). After the deployment, the unit will start to transition to, I think, a mechanized infantry brigade. Recognizing a need to be lighter, faster, and more quickly deployable, the Army is getting away from having quite so many heavy armored units. Either that, or we just make them nervous because we’re the only unit (active duty or National Guard) to have ever beaten the opposition force (mock bad guys) at the National Training Center (where they hold armored war games) in California.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Lillian, Meet your Daddy

Chris' latest article for the Idaho Statesman is about meeting Lillian and learning what this fatherhood thing is all about. To read it, go to: (or just go to and search 'chesak').

Your Worst Travel Day(s)

I’m in Iraq.

Normally I’d lead off with something like ‘Greetings from Peoria!’ or ‘Hello from Taipei!,’ but no, I’m just in Iraq. Worse still, I’m BACK in Iraq after a wonderful and amazing two weeks leave with Sally and Lillian.While home, a few people asked me what the travel was like getting from Iraq to home. Well, on the trip back here I took some notes (okay, more than ‘some’) so that folks could see the glory of not just traveling half-way around the planet, but doing so via military flights. Let’s just say that all those times that I used to get pissed off at a delayed flight or when I used to think that a four-hour flight was SO long, now seem pretty silly.

To give a better sense of all the time involved in this endeavor, all dates/times are Boise time, unless in parenthesis, which is local time. I hoped this would be less confusing than bouncing between Boise, Dallas, Hungary, Kuwait, and Kirkuk times and would show people the length of each leg.

Saturday, May 14

0500 Woke up after four hours sleep as I was up late packing (was in total denial for as long as possible). Depressed, I eat a butter-slathered Costco bagel and a huge bear claw donut for breakfast. If we had had a second donut in the house, I would have eaten that too.

0715 Sally and my goodbye was less weepy than I expected as we’re both looking forward to starting to get this last part of my deployment over with. We keep telling each other it’s our ‘last goodbye’. I don’t really choke up, until I squat down to give a sleeping Lilli one last smooch on the forehead.

0725 Four of us, including my Platoon Sergeant, are on a commercial flight to Denver from Boise. One of the guys in our group flying over, a soldier from Alpha Company, isn’t on the flight, having been arrested the night before. We don’t know why but he had a warrant out for his arrest and was pulled over the night before for a traffic violation. I always try to surround myself with only the BEST people, you know…

I watch longingly as the snow-covered mountains of Colorado pass below me, listening to some good new music on the plane’s sound system.A family is seated several rows in front of me and their very young daughter laughs, which simultaneously reminds me of Lilli’s laugh and causes my throat to constrict, heart to collapse, and stomach to fall away in absolute despair.

1030? At some point, we land in Dallas and I immediately try to take advantage of my good fortune at still being in the U.S. I walk through the concourse, wanting to buy everything, touch everything, and eat everything in sight, absorbing as much of America as I can. I restrain myself though and instead try to milk all that I can out of a 1200 minute phone card (thank you Kathy!!!) and call friends (or try, except for Jeff Murray, I get nothing but voicemails) and check in with Sally.

It already hurts badly to be away from my wife and daughter, but I try to take solace in knowing that I’m still in the same country with them, momentarily. But it’s already tough just talking on the phone to Sally. I hate the idea that for the next six months I will again only have her voice (occasionally). I want all of her in my arms again.

We have to leave the gate area, pick up any checked bags, have a meeting, get into a huge long line of military guys so that we can manifest (a.k.a. ‘check in’), get our bags weighed and declare our weight, and then go back through security to the gate area.

While I went there for lunch, I hit Chili’s again for dinner, just because I can.

? Charter flight on ATA (ugh!) takes off, almost completely full of nothing but soldiers. On the flight, I’m sort of haunted by the sound of Lilli laughing, as I just keep replaying the sound over and over again in my head, even though each time it crushes my heart and knots my guts.

Sunday, May 15

0430 (Maybe 1100 Hungary time?) After ten hours of flying, three movies (including Vin Diesel’s abysmally bad The Pacifier), two meals, a beautiful sunset that never really ended and just sort of evolved into dawn (both because of our flying east and I think because of the nape of the earth), and two full hours of fitful sleep, we arrive in Hungary, just outside Budapest. For some reason here we’re not allowed to deplane and so have to just sit out on the tarmac as the plane is refueled and a new flight crew comes on board. I ‘stretch my legs’ (a little) on the platform of the stairs that lead up to the plane.

Thus far, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of refueling in an array of foreign lands, including Qatar, Germany (first time back since I was born there in ’70 and then left three months later), Ireland, and now Hungary. Woo hoo.

Wanting for so long to travel around Europe, I long to have the opportunity to spend a few days here and check out the country but of course that’s impossible. So my travel article for Conde Nast would read something like this; "Hungary is a lush, vibrant country on the go that offers wonderful travel values. [That’s the lead in to try to hook the reader.] Many of the rooftops near Budapest are orange, possibly of some sort of tile. They also have asphalt for their runways but actually utilize a little more white stone in their mix than the standard American blacktop. Hungary boasts much green grass, much of it mowed, in between their runways and airport personnel often drive Volkswagen model cars that are not available in the U.S. The local peoples that removed our trash are typically Eastern European; sturdy, resolute, perhaps a bit worn down, but certainly proud." And that would be it, all my reflections from my time in Hungary.

0630 Depart Hungary. I try to watch Ocean’s Twelve and get another hour and a half sleep on the plane, maybe.

1030 Arrive Kuwait (7:30 PM local time). It’s 90+ degrees out and friggin’ humid (did I mention that I hate heat? I hate it when it’s only 90 degrees and dry in Boise and I’m wearing friggin’ shorts). I help unload plane to move around a little and get the blood flowing, then we get on buses, wait around, the buses drive to the edge of the airport, we wait around for our security escorts (US Army military police in Humvees), and the buses drive to a small camp on the Kuwaiti coast nicknamed ‘Camp Cancer’, since it’s located next to a chemical facility and, I believe, two smelting factories.

1243 (10:43 PM local time) We have our first briefing and our entire plane full of soldiers is divvied up into groups based on their final destination. We swipe our ID cards (they have magnetic strips on them just like credit cards now), get a brief from a chaplain’s assistant who urges us to ‘tell our stories’ (a more macho way of saying, ‘Hey, it sucks to come back, talk it out with your buddies’), other briefs about the process here, and when our formation times are.

Our Kirkuk-bound group is told that our formation time is at 1345 (a.k.a. 1:45 PM) and we breath a sigh of relief, knowing that we’ll be able to get some sleep. ‘Oops! Sorry guys, I read the wrong time. Your formation time is 0530.’ (a.k.a. 5:30 AM) We groan. We get into a huge line to pick up body armor. It’s almost midnight and I’m sweating.

1500 (12:30 AM, Monday May 16) After picking up our body armor, we go to midnight chow and stuff our faces. Again, I’m tempted to eat everything, both out of depression and because their chow hall is so good (they being a rear echelon unit of course). I call Sally for fifteen minutes. We agree that (for the 776,523rd time), "This sucks."

1700 (2:30 AM) I’m shaved, teeth are brushed, and I’m happy to be in the prone position on a bunk. Sure the bunk is covered in industrial-grade plastic that sticks to my greasy skin, and sure we’re in a warehouse surrounded by chain link fences and barbed wire (this in INSIDE the warehouse to keep other groups from getting mixed up with each other), and sure the industrial grade fluorescent lights hum incessantly as they are never, ever turned off (this is ‘for our safety’). Still though, I’m exhausted and actually on a mattress. I lay down, rest my head on my travel pillow, wrap my blouse over me like a blanket, pull my boonie hat down over my eyes, and wait for sleep to hit me (for at least three hours.)

But, my body clock is so screwed up, I end up not sleeping a wink. Not one. Not even a bit. Not a doze, nothing. I finish a wonderful book (The Life of Pi) in between fitful attempts at sleep where I flip and flop like a fish and glance continuously at my watch as my precious three hours slip away. Other guys face the same loosing battle and I see them up reading paperbacks, or spread out against the walls, hovering around electrical outlets watching movies or playing games on their laptops.

As much as I try to ignore it, I start to dream of when I’ll be back in Kuwait again as the next time will be when we’re rotating out of here to back home. I notice a divot in the middle of a fingernail and imagine that when that divot finally grows out to the end of the nail and I can finally clip it all away, I might very well be back here again, back in Kuwait and heading home for good. (Okay, so that’s one stupid way to gauge time but give me a break, I was TIRED! Gosh.)

2000 (6:00 AM) I finish my book, get up, and eat a bagel with peanut butter that I took from the chow hall. Soon fourteen of us are in formation, then sitting on a bus. There we’re told there are only thirteen slots so one guy will have to stay behind. No one volunteers. They ask again and again, using different people each time, as if this will jar one of us into volunteering. No one does.

The bus driver has a Kuwaiti English-language channel on the radio. Their DJ’s are just as annoying as our DJ’s. They’re playing Phil Collins. I hate Phil Collins.

Finally one guy volunteers to stay in Kuwait for who knows how long. We’ve had soldiers stuck there on their return trips for up to nine days. That’s nine days of trying to sleep under industrial lights on plastic-covered mattresses, usually without a change of clothes, no bedding, lots of formations called ‘just in case’, no idea when you’ll actually get a flight out, etc.

2147 (7:47 AM) Arrive by bus at a Kuwaiti air base, the same one that I got to call Sally from during Lillian’s birth. We even pass nearby the phone center that I called her from. Boy, what a great memory. I mean, being on the other side of the planet while your first child is born and you can barely hear anything for the shouts of excitement coming from the other end… (not that I’m bitter, never that).

Monday, May 16

0030 (9:30 AM) We meet up with a group of civilian contractors (most of which will make a salary here between $60,000 to $200,000/year) and a few low-level diplomats, then have a few hours of paperwork, get our gear sniffed by drug dogs, more paperwork, find out that (whoops!) we DO have fourteen slots on the plane and that the guy who volunteered to stay in Kuwait can now come (if he can get his butt to the Air Base in time), and quite some sitting around (I tried to stay on the bus as much as possible in the AC, now reading Dante’s Inferno… appropriately enough), and finally go eat at the Air Force chow hall.

The Air Force chow hall has Cinnebon cinnamon rolls. They have a dial-up, on-demand cappuccino/espresso machine. They have wide screen tv’s and an ice cream bar. Their base has brick-lined sidewalks and nostalgic, 1800’s-style street lights, giving part of it the look of a brand-new subdivision.

We curse the Air Force.

We wonder what it takes to transfer to the Air Force.

? The fourteenth soldier makes it to the Air Base just about an hour before we load the plane. The bus takes us right up to the rear ramp of the C-130 cargo plane.

A C-130 is essentially a big aluminum tube with nylon webbing sling seats. Aluminum is metal. Metal gets hot in the desert sun. The fuselage starts to heat up, slowly getting hotter inside than the temperature outside. We begin the longest taxi in the history of mankind. The flight crew has towels positioned strategically around the plane to wipe the beads of sweat off their faces. Most of our guys just start dropping their blouses, but still the sweat beads up.

We’re not wearing our body armor. It’s under our seats. In case anyone does shoot at the plane from the ground, that’s the best place for it.

0145 Our flight, a.k.a. ‘Chrome 53’, takes off. At some point during the flight, I manage another hour sleep.

0345 (1:45 PM Kirkuk time) We land at the KRAB (Kirkuk Regional Air Base) for more paperwork, more swiping of ID cards. Luckily it’s not nearly has hot or humid as Kuwait was, being only in the low 90’s or so. We wait around for our ride back to our patrol base. Our base used to be called Barbarian Base but I’ve dubbed it ‘Camp Barbie’ to give it a more ‘fun’ feel.

0540 We give urine samples for a pee test. Our convoy of Humvees shows up and I’m told to get into one. Oops, it’s already full! The only place I can ride is in the back of an unarmored truck with one of our interpreters and two big AC units (one for my squad area, thank god). Just as we’re about to roll out of the gate, I realize that I’m sitting in the back of an unarmored truck without even a weapon (we turned our personal weapons in back at our base before leaving). I motion to the Humvee behind me, sticking my finger and thumb out to make it look like a gun then putting my arms our to my sides, palms up, and shrug my shoulders in the international ‘I dunno/Where is it?’ signal. Their driver runs up and hands me his M4 carbine, just as my truck lurches away. I really don’t need the M4, but it’s comforting, just in case.

0700 (5:00 PM) After a mere 50 hours of travel (it was 69 or so hours on the way out), I arrive back at Camp Barbie. My squad is on guard duty so I have the bay to myself, blissfully. I unpack, am delighted to find three care packages on my bunk (thank you Jay, Kari & Edin, and Mona and Brandon!!!), and am chagrined at the state of our bay. It’s a mess (probably no surprise to anyone who knows me, but I’m the guy who makes sure people clean up, put their stuff away, etc…. yeah, I know). I don’t even have the energy to care though.

I go into the latrine, where there’s a carnage of cockroach bodies lying scattered around the floor, and try to take a shower. It’s cold. Welcome back! (Two days later I’ll realize that the shower was cold because I forgot that in Iraq, for some reason, the hot water valve is on the right, often sporting a blue dot while the cold sports a red one.)

I also don’t have the energy to realize that I didn’t eat since breakfast (thank god I had that Cinnebon roll, and that ice cream, and the extra mayo on my sandwich, and that apple, etc.) and I just go to bed. I only sleep for seven hours but they’re blissful ones and that effectively doubled the amount of sleep that I got during the past three days.

0400 Kirkuk time – I wake up, eat some cereal (thank god people send me soy milk!) – which is my first food in eighteen hours, rearrange my DVDs (yeah, I know…), go workout (hey, why not?), and start to resolve myself to the fact that I am back here again.

Three days later, I’m still not at all resolved to the fact of my sordid situation and I still long to be back with my family (‘my family,’ that’s SO cool to say still), in my home, in my bed. I had seen guys come back from leave and they all have this sullen look on their face and, when they talk, they generally speak in monosyllabic monotones for a few days. (We’ve developed an empathetic greeting for when I guy comes back from leave now; ‘Welcome back. I’m sorry you’re here.’) I call the return-from-leave-look ‘The ten yard stare.’ I still have that look, still speak in monotones, and, as I look around my plywood-encased bunk at my photos of Sally and Lillian, I don’t think they’re going to go away anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A number of folks have asked for images of how/where I live (and where I'll sadly return this Saturday). Since I have a real Internet connection, I thought I should post these now.
Here's my bunk. Note the photos of and cards from Sally and Lilli... and all the New England Patriots stuff. The flag in the upper right corner is a Kurdish flag, given to me on the street during celebrations when a Kurd was chosen interim President. Posted by Hello

The interior of our squad bay. About the size of an average bedroom, we have seven guys living there. The walls are plywood. Note the blacked-out windows (for both security reasons and summer heat) in the background. The table is key and not just for laptop computer video games, as we eat our meals here too. On the right is SPC Beans from the California NG and SPC Timmons, a farmer from eastern Idaho.  Posted by Hello

Our plywood 'dining facility', although it's too small to actually dine in. One squad will travel the 10 miles to the air base and pick up breakfast or dinner (lunches are on our own, burgers cooked by the interpreters' wives for $2 per, or just on our own - aka from care packages) and it's laid out here in those green 'mermite' insulated containers. We'll then eat back in our squad areas. Dinners are often the uneaten lunch leftovers from the airbase. Posted by Hello

A shot of the interior of our 'cyber cafe'. It's run by locals for $2/hour and often extremely slow - by our standards.  Posted by Hello

Just a shot of our basketball court. The pool is to the left, the Haji shop is center right (just above the second fence rail), and a guardtower is to the far right.  Posted by Hello

A shot of our climbing wall, built entirely by us. I was able to get us a deal on the holds and some of the gear and SPC Smith and CPL Wing did most of the construction. Pictured is SPC Wilson from Kerry, Idaho, who is my 'celly' (as in 'cellmate' - just our joke term for our bunkmates). Posted by Hello

Here's the little 'Haji Shop', run by one of our interpreters (seated on the right). They carry bootleg videos, souvenier knives, lots of candy, cold drinks, and a bunch of tobacco products, including Cuban cigars. If they don't carry it, they can usually get something else we need (lamps, rugs, etc.) within a few days. Posted by Hello

Here's our pool, which will be crucial to our general happiness when we get back from summer patrols. The heat could hit 120 degrees or so and I'm currently carrying 80 pounds of ammo, water, weapon, and armor on patrols. Note the color of the water. That's as clean as we could get it, with chlorine and a new pump. Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 05, 2005

First family photo ever! Taken at the Boise airport on 28 April, just moments after Chris met Lillian for the first time. Note the 'super daddy' sticker that Chris is wearing. Lilli sent it to him in Iraq on his birthday. Posted by Hello

Monday, May 02, 2005

Home at last!... for now

Hi all,

After more than 69 hours of travel (on Humvees, trucks, two C-130 cargo planes, various buses large and small, and three different commercial jets), paperwork, briefings, incessant lines, bad Army and airplane food, only about seven hours sleep in beds, several more hours sleep on airplanes, and my first beer in more than five months (a REAL Guinness in the Shannon, Ireland airport at five in the morning), I'm home at last, for leave at least! I'll be here for two weeks, starting the arduous trek back early on the 14th.

Until then, I'll be learning who Lillian is, getting reacquainted with Sally, enjoying such truly American things as Costco, interstates, drinking water from a tap, taking a shower in my bare feet, actually flushing toilet paper down the toilet, and a bathroom free of cockroaches.

I hope to make some calls and say hello to many folks, but I may not have much time to do so. After all, if there's a choice between chatting on the phone for a while or playing with Lillian, it's no contest.

I hope to post some more about Lilli and some photos soon. But for now I've got to try to help Sally with dinner, learning the intricacies of holding a baby in one arm while cooking with the other. It should be fun.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?