Friday, July 29, 2005

Feel the Heat

The other day the daytime high hit 130 degrees. Today might be hotter and of course we have guard duty, meaning we get to stand in concrete guard towers for eight hours in the oven-like heat.

Worse still, as much as I was celebrating mid-July as the hottest part of the summer, I'm now hearing that the hottest part of summer is still to come, possibly consuming the entire month of August. Here I was thinking that we were on the down slope when in fact we have still to yet walk through the furnace.

There's much discussion here about whether we should be able to remove our uniform blouse tops in the guard towers. Some argue for maintaining our uniform and thus preserving our discipline. Others, including our medics, argue that wearing all this stuff in such heat is debilitating and just downright dangerous. One guy had to get 'stuck' (intravenously given fluids from an IV bag) yesterday. But yet the debate rages on.

On the good news/bad news side, we were also recently issued new, better plates for our body armor. The plates are ceramic and the new ones stop even more kinds of bullets, which is nice. The bad news is that they are two pounds heavier per, so they add four pounds to our load. I've seen some guys just pack the new plates away, not wanting to deal with the additional weight, especially in light of the lack of times that we've actually been shot at.

When I go on guard duty later this afternoon, it will be just after the hottest part of the day. I hope that when I start to hallucinate, that I will have visions of skiing through knee-deep Idaho powder...

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Brothel

Acting on intelligence from a local, we sped out of our base en route to an undisclosed location where allegedly a man was burying artillery rockets for a possible attack on the KRAB. The location turned out to be an Iraqi brothel and the informant a slightly retarded 14-year old. I wonder now if the owner of this fine establishment might have had the boy feed us bad intel in order to help spread the word about their services...

It ain't exactly the Ritz but a bunch of our guys wanted to stay... once we found the cooler full of ice and beer. In the tents the guys found 'more cosmetics than they'd seen all year' in any Iraqi houses, plus plenty of wigs. Posted by Picasa

Whore's kids need love (and toys) too. I dished out a couple of toys to the kids who'd run after our Humvees. The girl holds a stuffed turkey Beanie Baby thing, the boy in the blue a green/yellow flying disc sent from my dad, and the little guy in brown a bubble-blowing kit. Posted by Picasa

Sgt. Shawn Stewart shows the kids how to blow bubbles from the bubble kit. We were worried that if someone didn't show them, the kids might try to drink the soapy bubble mix. Better safe than sorry. Posted by Picasa

Steakfest '05!

Some guys (not us… really) had a late night patrol and had to return to the KRAB to refuel their vehicles. They just happened to stop by the TOC (Tactical Operations Center – a.k.a. our battalion headquarters) where the POG's that work there have a little cookout area and hold their weekly Friday barbeques.

Our squad just happened to check the large, usually locked freezers that the TOC has outside, which are filled with all sorts of kinds of 'near beer' (which we don't get at our patrol base) and other little goodies (that we also don't get at our base). Well, this time, the freezers were unlocked. And thus was born Steakfest '05!

That particular squad (bless them) got enough steaks for the whole platoon and our next day off was filled with a flurry of homemade marinades, scrounging for BBQ sauces, and just general steak-focused mayhem. Luckily the PX at the KRAB sells charcoal briquettes (it's true – shipped all the way to the Middle East so that we can cook outside when it's 115 degrees out) and luckily that we had a contact on the KRAB that let us borrow a grill. Posted by Picasa

Sgt Briggs fires up the steaks on the 50-gallon drum cum grill. Note the University of Texas El Paso t-shirt, which many of the guys got during the Boise State/UTEP game we attended while training at Ft. Bliss.

Since I'm nearly eating vegetarian here (ironically the chow hall meat does not agree with me yet the local stuff goes down just fine), I normally wouldn't have eaten a big fat steak. But since it was something different, I just had to indulge. Tough to cut that sucker with plastic-ware though, I can tell you that.

And Steakfest '06 will be held IN IDAHO! Posted by Picasa

New Statesman Article

The Idaho Statesman recently published another article, this one with a photo of yours truly… although I'm entirely backlit. I actually staged the shot but couldn't leave my post as a gunner on the Humvee so had to ask someone else to take it. Normally I would never send in a picture of me, much preferring to get the guys here some 'press', but it's tough to get a shot that illustrates 'heat' and often difficult to just get a good shot. Regardless, the link is


Short timer – We've been told that we now have less than 100 days left in-country, making me what's called a 'double-digit midget'. (Alliteration aside, what a STUPID phrase!) Currently we're hearing that we'll close up this patrol base by the end of September, spend a month or so on the KRAB, fly down to Kuwait for a couple of days and then we're off to Ft. Lewis for between five and nine days of de-mobilization. We're also now hearing that we'll be in 'lock down' during our de-mobe so that we can get it, get it done, and get back home asap.

I am a complete idiot – Since I once worked at the U.S. Supreme Court (albeit briefly – just about eleven months), I, through a completely random manner, ended up writing the preface to and being the 'technical editor' of, the Complete Idiot's Guide (CID) to the Supreme Court. Since I still had those contacts at the publisher, I recently approached them with an idea to do a CID to Being Deployed, which would be written by both Sally and myself. Sally would write the chapters about home life and I would write the ones about the military side. They shot the idea down but then asked me to write the preface to the forthcoming CID to Long-Distance Relationships. Random. I'll be working on that soon and should get a few hundred bucks for it. I'll need the money for when I'm not working after I get back after being deployed!

Your tax dollars at work – the unit cost for my SAW light machine gun is $4,087. An M240 medium machine gun costs $6,600 while the grandpappy M2 .50 cal heavy machine guns cost $14,000 per. Just thought you ought to know where some of our defense budget goes. By the way, if I remember correctly, the U.S. defense budget nearly equals that of the entire rest of the world combined.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Unique Truck

We'd only seen the Explosives Ordinance Disposal trucks from a distance but were always intrigued by them. They're relatively rare to see and are just so bizarre that they sort of command attention when they roll past. Finally, one day in the KRAB's chow hall parking lot, I saw one up close.

Note how high up off the ground this thing is. That, along with its bathtub-shaped undercarriage, is to help dissipate explosions from mines, roadside bombs, unexploded ordinance, etc. On the other side of the truck (photo left) you can see the big, Space Shuttle-like arm attached to the front of the vehicle. It has rake on one end and is used to sift through rubble, trash, whatever, and pick up possible explosive devices.

These guys are always looking for more people to join their ranks and they offer all sorts of extra pay and whatnot to draw people in. Funny though, they usually don't have many takers... Must be because they're some of the busiest guys in the Army right now. Or it might be all those BOMBS they work with all the time. No thanks, not for me!Posted by Picasa

Here's the backside of the truck. Note the ladder, which shows just how high up this thing really is. Posted by Picasa

I Am Ghengis Chez

I am a warlord, I am a desperado, I kidnap coffee drinks! Why? Because sometimes, I get sort of bored.

The truth of the matter is that, for all our patrols and guard days and all, there are also days where we just sort of get bored. And then there are days where you just sort of have had enough and sort of go loopy and start laughing hysterically at jokes that really aren't that funny. And then there are days where you get a little more creative...

I am 'Ghengis Chez', Warlord of All the Earth, but Especially 3rd Platoon's Squad Bays, Sultan of Plywood Walls, Lord of Details and Police Calls (aka 'picking up trash'), Owner of a Faux Fur 'Snow Leopard' vest!

The first question is just why do I have a faux fur vest in a country that's currently running at about 120+ degrees each day? A funny story that. My high school buddy Jeff Mann has a lovely wife named Sarah, who is amazingly talented and sings, dances, and just generally cavorts on stage for nationally-touring plays. Currently she's also a hostess on While on leave, my wife Sally was kind enough to show me a clip of Sarah's work, as she was passionately pitching reversible faux fur snow leopard vests for all the (probably older) ladies watching

So I called Jeff and when he picked up, I acted like I wanted to order a snow leopard vest. I made the joke several times during the call and again, I think, over email. Later I thought, 'You know, I think I might have just set myself up there...' So one day a care package shows up here in Iraq, all the way from Minneapolis. It is very light. The customs form on it says 'clothing'. It is... a faux fur snow leopard vest. And now, I am Ghengis Chez!

(The knife by the way is a homemade, replica Ghurka knife (the Ghurka were soldiers from northern India/present day Nepal) that Sgt. Shriver actually carries around with him in sector. It was made out of a truck spring.) Posted by Picasa

I am a desperado. I am Poncho Chez Villa! (No relation to Bob Vila.) I am a rustler of cattle, a drinker of tequila, and I don't need no stinkin' badges!

So my dad was visiting his buddy Carolyn down in New Mexico (she was his high school sweetie and now they're buddies again) and, after cutting through several layers of duct tape on his care package, I found that he'd sent me a beautiful Mexican runner and poncho. Well, many of the squad leaders were out back, in our lounge/smoking area, when I bust out in the poncho, saying that it's the Army's new uniform (the Army is, by the way, in the process of getting new uniforms with a digitized camouflage pattern on them, but unfortunately they aren't quite so colorful as the poncho).

Soon, Sgt. Dimitrov has pressed his shotgun into my hands and throws his bandolier of shotgun shells around me. Then we need a hat. I just received about a dozen free hats from climbing company Mammut for the guys and so did my best to arrange them in a sort of a sombrero sort of pattern on my head.

And then the photos start. And as ALL the flashes are going off and in between all the laughter, I think, 'Well, there goes any chance for ever holding any sort of political office of any kind, ever.'

(Speaking of the shotgun, each squad is issued one as a 'breaching tool'. Several sergeants have taken to carrying it, a vintage model little changed from the one used in World War II, as their primary weapon in sector, since it's so light and since it would come in handy for really clearing out a room. Sgt Dimitrov was the first to order some modifications for his, like pistol-style grip and collapsible stock) and others quickly followed suit.)  Posted by Picasa

I am a kidnapper of coffee drinks a declarer of jihad on corporate beverages! I am a terrorist who is ready to kill American coffee drinks in order to achieve my goals, one of which is to pass the time here with mirth and merriment!

First squad bought a case of Starbuck's coffee drinks at the PX and then put them in the communal freezer. They put a note on them, saying 'First Squad's / Do not touch! Or else we will end your life and your so-called pathetic 'career' in the Idaho National Guard!' So of course I take one.

Soon after, this photo (note the old Iraqi army bayonet in the photo) adorns the freezer along with a note from the Rodent Liberation Front (since a first squad member had once declared a 'jihad' against the rats that once lived with us here) stating that the Frappucino will be killed unless a list of demands are met; several rolls of nice, quilted toilet paper, their satellite TV dish receiver, etc. and leave it all in a certain guard tower at midnight.

They respond in a note addressed to the 'Raging Lilies and Fairies' (how dare they make fun of my daughter Lillian!) stating that they do not negotiate and they threaten the RLF in no uncertain terms. They state they have a special hostage rescue team ready to go that will tear us from our beds in the middle of the night.

We, I mean the RLF, replied simply by hanging a Frappucino bottle cap up by the freezer, sending a message that other 'body parts' will follow if our demands aren't met. Our final note says, "So bring on your Delta [Force], your Rangers, your oh-so-'Special' Forces, and your elite Idaho National Guard! We will have God on our side and our jihad (that's right, I said JIHAD) will turn the world against you. Your fate will be the same as your little corporate friend!"

Now, first squad is sort of our 'stud squad,' or so they think. They have a guy who served with the Rangers (he was nearly a Ranger himself but had to withdraw from training when it ran late and would overlap with his wedding), a former Marine sniper, a former corporate VIP bodyguard, and a corrections officer who used to teach some crazy high-speed rescue swimming stuff for the Army. They all got together and decided that they needed to respond with such vigor and overwhelming stupidity that no other squad would dare challenge them again.

We go on patrol one night but leave SPC Smith behind to give him a night off. When we return, Smith is in bed and there's a burned DVD on my desk with 'S.O.K.' on it. We watch the DVD and it's video of first squad charging into our bay, wearing only ski masks and one well-placed sock each. They drag Smitty out of bed, zip tie him, pull a hood over his head and then proceed to question him about where the Frappucino is. Smitty doesn't give them any information but the rest of the video is them outside with a bound and hooded 'Smith' (actually someone else). The Super Outrageous Kidnappers (SOK) go on a diatribe about how "this raid was an example of how they can strike deep into the heart of your organization" and listing their own demands, primarily FIVE cases of Frappucinos. The video ends with the Police's 'Every Breath You Take' playing over a shot of a Frappucino, followed by the text "In loving memory of PFC 'Frappy' Frappucino." (Apparently first squad is well-versed in Mircosoft's MovieMaker program.)

Wilson and I, the master minds behind the RLF huddle together to create a plan - and suddenly realize we got nothin'. They topped us, they win. I mean, we can't even think of something that we could really do, especially since it was all pretty much just Wilson and me, more me really, doing all this.

So two days later (we had to make it look like we weren't TOTALLY capitulating to their demands), PFC 'Frappy' Frappucino was released, unharmed (the bottle cap we strung up was from another Frappucino we found in the trash), and with much fanfare, including a small, but heartfelt 'welcome home' sign.

So what beverage will be kidnapped next? What stupid hat(s) will I put on my head? When will Ghengis Chez strike again? What further idiocy is to follow? Stay tuned true believers and find out! Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


It is now routinely in the 120+ degree range here. It hit 126 the other day, just in time for me to have the day shift on guard duty, spending eight hours in full uniform, body armor, etc. while standing alone in concrete guard towers.

How do you handle the heat? Well, first of all your body does get somewhat used to it. I used to walk out of my house in Boise at the peak of summer when it was 105 and, while wearing shorts and sandals, would think, 'UGH, it's an oven out here.' Well, it wasn't even close. As the days have gotten hotter, our bodies have slowly adjusted.

You also strip everything off you that you possibly can. I've already mentioned that I don't wear my t-shirt or underwear any more. The other day, I stopped wearing my belt, ditched my long army socks for ankle-high running socks, and stopped blousing my pants into my boots, instead tying the drawstrings at the end to make them look bloused but still allow air to get in/out.

You drink water, tons of water. We have a freezer filled with water bottles (although they never stay in there long enough to actually freeze) and most guys bring coolers filled with ice around with them. On that day, Sgt. Briggs was our 'Sergeant of the Guard' and he actually walked around with a cooler full of Kurdish ice cream for everyone.

You do a few things you're not supposed to, like opening up your body armor once in a while to catch a breeze, or maybe leaving your chinstrap unbuckled.

Mostly though, you just accept it. You stop worrying about the sweat running down your back and your butt, don't wipe away all the sweat running down your face and onto your glasses, you just blink more when a rare breeze comes along and doesn't do much more than dry out your eyeballs, and you just don't worry about it. You deal and you don't complain. After all, why would you? It's hot as hell and you're out there for eight hours and whining won't make the day go any faster.

On the plus side though, we're nearing July 15, what I consider the apex of the heat. Our 'terps (interpreters) tell us that August is also ridiculously hot, but mentally at that point, there will be light (or a breeze, or maybe 'cool' 90-degree days, or maybe just plain old hope) just around the corner. Its name is September.

The Shot

Thanks to my brother Mark and my dad, I have a nice digital camera. They were kind enough to buy it when I first arrived in-country and my bother decked it out with a pouch and other handy accessories. And thanks to them, you have photos to look at on this blog, since all the pics herein are from that camera.

But like all things photography, there's a ton of things that can go wrong with a shot, including lighting, stuff on the lens, the shot is blurred, a head cut off, eyes are closed, etc. Plus, to get a good shot, several things have to go right in terms of composition, expression, etc. So, when I can, I just shoot and shoot and shoot and hope for the best. When I get back to our hooch here, I download the pics and start to delete the oh-so many that just didn't work out.

Here's a shot that just makes me happy for a couple of reasons. That's my black-gloved hand in the foreground, handing a stuffed turtle to a little boy. Actually the little boy was too afraid of me, so his brother took it for him and quickly gave it to his brother. Now, in an ideal world, the kids wouldn't be all grouped together in a vertical line like that but just the combination of colors, the clarity, and of course the look on the kids' faces just kind of, I think, bring this one all together.

By the way, the above stuffed animals, and several more that I didn't get shots of or that we had to throw over courtyard walls to get to the 'right' kids (usually scared or timid little girls), all came from the good folks at the Goddard House. They sent a few boxes more so I'll have my hands full for the next few patrols. Hopefully though, I'll get at least one more good shot out of it all. Posted by Picasa

Here's one that I was really hoping would come together. But, in the midst of our patrol, with me driving a truck around this neighborhood, talking on the radio, checking the map for our squad leader, thinking as always about possible bad guys, trying not to scare little Iraqi girls, and occasionally running out to do the good-will thing, I just couldn't hold the camera steady enough. This was a bummer since I was so looking forward to giving away such a colorful flounder, especially to kids that live in such a colorless world.

But every once in a while, you just get a shot where just about everything comes together and you just kind of say, 'Yeah!' to yourself, happy to have recorded a moment in such a way as to almost do it justice. Posted by Picasa

Monday, July 04, 2005

It is Gettin' So Hot...

It's been said that, with the proper infrastructure, Iraq could be one of the world's largest oil producers, second only to Saudi Arabia. And 40% of that oil reserve is said to lie around Kirkuk. As a matter of fact, Iraq is so rich in petroleum and natural gas, that sometimes it seeps right out of the ground.

The eternal flame has allegedly been burning since time began. It sits on the edge of the city and, while certainly intriguing, is really nothing more than a pit with flames coming out of it, flames that burn naturally and on their own. A history of the region that my brother sent me said that historically, pregnant women would come to the area around the flame and kick back some of the dirt there. If a flame appeared, they were supposed to give birth to a boy. Posted by Picasa

We've taken to using the eternal flame as a place for soldiers to have their reenlistment ceremony. There's me above (albeit blurry), just roastin' like a burger. You wouldn't believe how many guys stepped down into the eternal flame to get a picture and would say, 'God, it's HOT!' Uh yeah, it's FLAME... FIRE? Hello? Posted by Picasa

Jake Smith takes his turn. As if Iraq weren't hot enough already! Posted by Picasa

Happy Fourth…

Our fourth of July started at 0430 as our squad had the morning logpac run to the KRAB. Unfortunately my body clock was still set for the midnight guard duty shifts that we'd just rotated off of, so I didn't sleep at all. Later in the day, we rolled out again in especially hot weather. Rumors abound that it was hitting over 120 degrees and it sure felt like it. While almost a trite analogy, it truly felt like a sauna. I was the gunner in our Humvee and when we drove around, the 'breeze' felt like I was standing in front of a blast furnace.

A lovely, sweltering, day on patrol! Posted by Picasa

We returned to base drenched in sweat but quickly got in line for our 'big BBQ'. The senior NCO's were grilling up hot dogs and burgers for us, which was a nice treat. Standing in line, we held our plastic plates in one hand, shooing squadrons of flies away with the other. Above, Sgt. Stewart, Smitty, Wilson, Timmons, and 'Doc' McKenzie wait for burgers whilest shooing. This is many of these guys' second Fourth away from home (last Fourth they were in Texas training).

Some of the 'terps (interpreters) gathered up money and went out earlier and bought fireworks. One approached me saying, "Hello, I am going to buy fireworkers. Would you like some?" So many of the guys were lighting off roman candles, bottle rockets, sparklers, et al. Posted by Picasa

Put on a (somewhat) happy face... Posted by Picasa

We simply got our food, when back to the wonderful AC of our squad bay area, and chowed down. I decided, since it was a holiday, I would have TWO Dr. Pepper's! (They're in the lower right of the the pic, with my dogs.) We really know how to live it up here.

Then we watched a movie ('Hitch' which we thought was often hilarious - although maybe we just needed the laugh) and then went to bed, or tried to. I conked out at 2200, only to awaken at 0030. Fun. Happy Fourth. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Lights, Camera, Cell Phones!

Movies are one key to our sanity. While there are certainly days when we're running non-stop on missions and whatnot, there are other days where we just sit, and wait. We workout, we joke around, we read books, we email and chat, and we watch movies, LOTS of movies.

The other day we were off and we watched all three Lord of the Rings movies – NINE HOURS of movie viewing! I thought we might start getting butt sores from sitting so long. During training in Texas, some days were so slow that these guys would watch up to five movies a day. Sad, but true.

When someone gets new movies in, he immediately announces it to the rest of the squad. And when one of those flicks hasn't been seen much, it quickly becomes the 'hot movie' of the moment. An example: Sally recently sent me four movies, but most of the guys had already seen three of them. The fourth one though, 'Super Size Me,' they hadn't seen. It was snatched out of my hand faster than you could say 'Happy Meal' and immediately went from Smith, to Wilson, to Tozer, to Ohlensehlen, to who-knows-who-else, skipping from laptop-to-laptop in a new movie frenzy. (Funnier still, I still haven't actually watched it myself yet, but I will.)

PC Jake Smith holds up a bootleg 'Val Kilmer Collection' box set at the Shara Shop.

While loved ones send us what films (and sometimes entire boxed set seasons of tv shows) they can, most guys' source of movies are the 'haji movies.' In the Shara Shop, the little tiny convenience/candy/tobacco store run by our interpreters, they sell bootleg DVD's for $5-6 per. This can be a real bargain at times as they often have up to six movies on each DVD. There's one slight problem though - the quality usually sucks.

There are two kinds of haji movies, the first, and better, being straight up copies of older DVD's. The quality on these isn't terrible. Usually the picture gets a little pixilated during night scenes or sweeping landscape shots and sometimes the sound is low. Some guy's computers (like mine) can be a little fussy with these DVD's too, sometimes just refusing to play them.

Often these come in boxed sets that look very professional, until you look a little closer as typos abound. The Cameron Diaz boxed set included a copy of 'Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas' that was listed on the outside of the box as 'Fear & Nothing in Las Vegas.' Sometimes such collections contain movies that that particular actor isn't even in.

The other type of haji movies are the ones pirated right from a movie theater, where a guy with a camera actually just films the movie as it's played on the screen. These ones can be real laughers as you'll often see heads of people seated in front silhouetted on the screen, people will stand up to go get a drink or popcorn, you hear creaking as people shift in their seats, the video is dark and the audio sounds like it's playing through a can, and occasionally you'll hear a cell phone go off. But guys still buy these ones as it's the only way we can see first-run movies.

So we watched Russell Crowe in 'Cinderella Man' with a cell phone bleating in the foreground, saw a dark and hard to hear copy of 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith' that cut out every 20 minutes or so, and even got to watch the new Star Wars movie just a day or two after it hit theaters, although the heads of people in most of the scenes were cut off and I think there was a time code in the lower left corner during some scenes. Not exactly 'suspending disbelief' but hey, what can we do? Our copy of 'Kicking & Screaming' even had French titles on it. Regardless, with 'Kicking & Screaming' we laughed and, perhaps most importantly, passed another two hours here, without thinking about IED's, or police calls, or the heat, or patrols, or just how much we miss our families. The quality might not be great, and the atmosphere certainly isn't as grand as The Egyptian in downtown Boise, but, for now, we'll take it. Posted by Picasa


And speaking of watching movies, a few weeks ago I finally got to watch the New England Sports Network DVD about the Red Sox winning the World Series (thank you Jason!). After being infused with such New England pride, I just had to then watch the DVD of the Patriot's Super Bowl-winning season. And then I picked up a magazine and – lo and behold – it was an old Sports Illustrated about the Pats actually winning the Super Bowl and which declared Boston 'Titletown.' (Sorry, just had to gleefully gloat a bit there.)

Friday, July 01, 2005

New Statesman Article

If you are interested, I have a new article in the Idaho Statesman. This one is about our finding a good-sized ammunition cache in the foothills around Kirkuk. It actually happened in February but the story just now ran at

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