Homecoming

I wrote most of this a couple of weeks ago but didn’t get a chance to review it before posting; hence, the delay. Now back to my leave.

2009.08.24

Getting out of the Middle East went faster than expected. My unit was scheduled to sit in Kuwait for about four to five days killing time until we could catch a flight to Fort Bliss. The gods were on our side that day as we were directed to a customs briefing when we arrived at Camp Arifjan, which indicated we were out of there that night.

This was a morale builder that our unit needed. Toward the end of our time in Iraq, the littlest things would cause friction between the soldiers: a funny look, a faulty assumption or the wrong odor. Anything was a potential instigator, especially if it involved the commander. He earned the nickname “The Common Denominator” during our deployment because of his connection to every problem in the unit whether it was spreading rumors of sexual impropriety or the creation of hypocritical policies about religious expression like “no discussing religion in the building” after he finishes read scripture to us in formation.

Regardless, we were on our way out of Kuwait and things were looking up. Since we are a small 20-man unit, we were slipped onto an aircraft with a unit from the Texas Guard.

This was a long torturous journey, but well worth it. Our first leg stopped in Germany. I’d been to this airport a few times before. It is a regular stop when returning home on leave and heading into theater. Stepping off that plane there was the the first time going home felt real. I shuttered from the change in temperature. It was less than a day prior that my skin was stinging from the heat in Iraq. Now, the chill of Northern Europe was soothing and came with a sense of peace.

The only downside to stopping there is the torment that comes from shopping in the two stores there. They sell sell two basic products: candy and beer. Boy did that beer look good, but we were still under General Order No. 1, which meant we weren’t allowed to drink. “No beer” is one of Joes’ favorite things to bitch about and, after serving with the Brits who stop off in Cyprus to get loaded and beat the crap out of each other before they get home, I was a little disapointed myself.

Back on the plane, we stopped in Bangore, Maine, to refuel before landing at Fort Bliss in the middle of the night.

Bliss lived up to its name. It must have been 20 to 30 degrees cooler than Iraq and yet it is still a desert. It must have rained prior to our arrival because the smell of freshly moistened desert floor permeated the area. That’s got to be my favorite smells, which stirred nostalgia for me that day. Bliss was my first duty station on active duty in 2000 and that’s where I learned the majority of what I know about newspapers, public affairs and the Army.  It’s still a great post and my former boss Jean Offutt is still there telling the Army story.

As we entered the reception building, we were greeted with a shot in the arm and a paper thermometer under the tongue. The shot was for Tuberculosis – or some traditional ailment – and the temperature read was tied to the hippest new fad in medicine: Swine Flu. I didn’t have a curly tail, or a temperature, so I was a “go.”

It was about three days later that we finally got to go home, minus four medical holds. When a soldier checks the box that says “I want a doctors apointment” when filling out their exit interview, they get to stay at the de-mob station for a couple of days. Most of us wanted to see our families more than we wanted to get fixed.

Arriving in Phoenix was interesting. There was a dog and pony show waiting for us outside as we carried our gear to the bus. Those who greeted us then got onto their motorbikes and escorted us to the armory where we would receive a homecoming from the Guard, media and, more importantly, our families. Normally I would discount this hoopla treatment as mindless jingoism, but a couple of years ago I joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars. My deployment was a big deal to a lot of those guys. They threw a big party for me before I left and many tears were shed. I’m not sure if it was because they were having memories of Vietnam, or if they were drunk. Regardless, they were concerned for my welfare and they considered me a brother in arms. Their feelings were not just romantic notions of war. They were genuine sentiments from people who cared. It was very touching to me and made me appreciate their heartfelt support.

I feel that it is important for me to clarify one point about patriotism these days. I get it when Vets want to shake our hands. They can relate to our experiences. What I don’t respect are the patriotic gestures of non-military people, or people who feel like they “know what we’ve been through.” All of our experiences are different, some of which are uneventful. It hits us all in different ways. I’ve interviewed and chatted with hundreds of Iraq War vets and they all have unique stories. I just don’t appreciate the fake attitude that comes off as “See, I’m a patriot. I kissed a soldier’s ass today and said ‘thank you’. Can I get a latte with that?” It just doesn’t work for me. It’s hard to be fake back to that person and make them believe, “Yeah, I give a shit about what you think.” I’m not talking about people who are friendly and smile at us, those who are curious about us or those who understand the role of the military. They usually say, “It’s good to have you back,” and leave it at that. I’m talking about the civilians who say “thank you for protecting my family over there.” This is a slap in the face, in my opinion. People who say that are so far removed from reality, or so brainwashed by today’s political ideologies, that they have no idea what they are talking about. Iraq didn’t attack us, they didn’t have weapons capable of attacking us and the only thing we managed to do was destroy what civility they had and anger many of them to the point of responding to us with violence any way they could. We might have something to fear from them now, but we didn’t in the beginnging. Containment worked. Arrogance failed.

Now that we are home it will be weird to go back to our regular drilling routine. The last time this unit “deployed” it went to Tampa, Fla., for a year and to the Olympics in Utah prior to that. This was the first time it went to war that I am aware of, and yet it seems like there was more of an internal threat to our soldiers than from the opposition forces in Iraq. We will see if any damage was done next time we get together. In the mean time, we will enjoy our families again and, for me, that means my wife and new son.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A New Picture

2009.08.11

I’m sitting at the airport killing time before we relocate within theater. It’s odd that this place has the best wireless Internet on post but, regardless, I’m glad it is here.

I decided to make a final change to my header picture today. I should have made this change when I first arrived at Balad, but I didn’t think about it then. This new picture really captures the prison feel of this place. As I’ve mentioned before, Balad has a much more disconnected feel from Iraq than the rest of the locations I visited. You can serve an entire 12-month tour here and not see an Iraqi. Fortunately, I was able to travel around the country and see what was going on.

This new picture was taken outside of my Containerized Housing Unit (CHU); a Kellogg, Brown and Root provided house. Mine is the first door on the left. It was the middle room of a three room CHU, which made for interesting neighborly relations. The walls were made of thin fake-wood paneling with no insulation in the middle, so there was no wondering if your neighbor was home, or what they were doing. The deteriorating sandbags were a nice touch as well. I’m not sure if they really intended to protect soldiers from anything or just to create a false sense of security.

AoMBlogThe three images that I used as my flag photos tell an interesting story – to me at least – when looking at them in hind site. The first was an image of my cousin from his second tour in Iraq. He was a part of the combat phase of this war, which I later learned was not what I was going to experience; hence, my first change.

My next picture was a more accurate portrail of what I saw when I started going on missions in Iraq. It was a photo of a tent taken along one of the routs we travelled into Basra from our camp.

NewAoM

After Gen. David Petraeus re-oriented our efforts in Iraq — creating relative security — we were able to assist Iraqis with some much needed reconstruction to schools and other civic buildings. I was fortunate enough to go on many of these civil affairs missions in the Basra province where our teams met with local officials to identify what facilities were needed and to view some of the completed projects like clinics, schools and a courthouse.

Now that we — my unit and shortly the whole Army — is on its way out of Iraq, I hope the Iraqis will be able to continue to improve their country’s quality of life. I’ve meet a lot of good people, but their lives are not easy. Stress will make people do horrific things.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A quick note

2009.08.06

Hey there! I’m sitting in a USO Internet cafe using one of their computers at Joint Base Balad, so I only have a few minutes to write.

My unit is almost out of here. I have a couple more weeks in Iraq, a few days in Kuwait and then a couple days in my old stomping grounds of Fort Bliss, TX. That was my first duty station on active duty where I learned how to run a newspaper. I love ElPaso and I look forward to being there again. I wonder if the German Air Force still trains there. More importantly, I wonder if they still have the German club with the great schnitzel and beer.

So, Army of Mine will be coming to an end at the end of August. This has been a great trial in social media. I really look forward to getting home and starting a new topic and something that might last longer. This tour has really dialed me into the blogosphere and the power of Facebook.

Although we can’t use Facebook — or blogs — on official DoD computers, Morale, Welfare and Recreation centers and USO facilities provide a decent work around. These social media tools have become such a critical part of the media landscape, that you are an idiot if you call yourself a public affairs practicioner and you don’t engage them.  You can find top ranking officials making “official” blogs unofficially. The Multinational Corps – Iraq (MNC-I) public affairs sergeant major manages the MNC-I Facebook page, for example. It’s a great, informative page without the feel of PA spin doctoring. It’s funny, I mentioned this FB page to my leadership and they just laughed. They also think their sole audience is their hometown audience.  They forget this is a counterinsurgency and we are supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqis and the world. Some people aren’t hip to the Internet I guess.

As for my living conditions, I can say that I am in temporary housing a couple of miles from where I was before. These are not like the two man trailors I was in before. They are 20 man boxes — wood squares, really — filled with man-made wind of every stench and temperature. Yeah, use your imagination on that one. Then again, you might be better off not.

The good news about our location is that it is closer to the chow hall or, at least, it is on the way to everything else, so I tend not to skip meals as much as I used to. The path from the shack to the dinning facility is lined with trees and dead pigeons. This avian valley of death is the result of pellet-gun strapped airmen getting their rocks off picking on helpless birds. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. They actually have a legitimate reason for killing the flying rats. Since we are an air base, the birds make their way onto the flight line and become a threat to the aircraft. I’m not sure I buy it, but it sounds good enough.

I guess I will spend the rest of my time here trying to stay out of trouble. Everyone is edgy, irritable and just wants to go home. That leads to friction and drama, but so far we are keeping it together pretty good.

Until next time.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Fishbowl Factor

2009.07.13

Being deployed is one thing, but being deployed and stuck in a garrison-like environment can be brutal at times.

This environment provides me with better access to the Internet than most places in Iraq. That’s great because I couldn’t blog without it; however, it is also what creates the the fishbowl factor for me; allowing me to peer out at the world I’d rather be in.

Today, for example, I received my upcoming-live-music update for music shows at venues in the Phoenix area. This is a great service provided by a local record store back home, especially for live music fans. The bad part to this service is that it is nothing but a teaser for me while I’m here.

There are some great shows coming up, which I don’t stand a chance of making it to, like the legendary LA punk band The Germs. Holy Crap! I mean, I know lead singer Darby Crash is dead, but I’m sure drummer Don Bolles and the gang will be there to make it great. I was too young to see them when they were in their prime – and Crash was alive, so this is as good as it gets for a guy like me and bands like this won’t be around much longer.

Back in 2005 when I was separating from active duty, I cleared through Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C. I had just finished my tour by escorting Henry Rollins (former lead singer of Black Flag, Rollins Band) through the mystical desert of the Sinai during his USO Tour of Egypt and Turkey, when an opportunity to see another legendary punk band presented itself: The Misfits, named after the Marylyn Monroe film.

Fayettenam, as the hosting town is coined, is a great place to see a punk show. Since this community thrives on the base’s economic thrust, a lot of what exists there is what the soldiers want: tattoos, strip malls and seedy bars with live music. Jester’s Pub is where I saw the Misfits for the first time in my life. I had always loved their music, and it was hard not to be attracted to the Fiend Club imagery of the skulls and horror film themes, which has influenced so many modern bands like Arizona’s own Hour of the Wolf.

Although lead singer Glenn Danzig was long gone from the lineup, bassist Jerry Only did a great job of filling in and who could complain about guitarist Dez Cadena – former lead singer of Black Flag before Rollins, and of Redd Cross – and drummer Robo who was in some of the best line ups for both the Misfits and Black Flag in the early 80’s.

Because this was such a great hybrid of Misfits and Black Flag members, the show not only featured Misfits songs, but Only was able to take a break from singing when Cadena stepped to the mic with Black Flag classic Six Pack. It was a spectacular performance that made the hair standup on my neck. It still does just thinking about it.

Even the venue was cool. It was pretty small, so fans could get close to the performers, which made it hot, but exciting with all of the stage diving. And, unlike most classic punk shows these days, this show was not full of young kids flopping around. For some reason it was dominated by men in their late 20s to early 40s, which made for a healthy mosh pit with plenty of physical activity.

I can’t wait to get home and reinsert myself into the lap of luxury we call America. Not so much for the fancy cars, the over abundance of food, or girls in skimpy clothes. I can’t wait for the chance to stand in the close quarters of a venue like the Clubhouse in Tempe where the only violence I have to concern myself with is getting kicked in the head by a lead singer dismounting a stage.

12 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Army beats Air Force, spikes youthful surge in an old man’s love for the game

I’m not old as far as life expectancies go, but I am at an age where I should consider trading in my high tops for speed walking shoes. I love basketball and mentally keeping up with the young guys on the court is no challenge, but my body doesn’t seem to want to follow suit. However, I can’t quite shake that desire to feel the euphoria that comes from a great game of hoops.

As a kid I moved around a lot. And as a child of a single parent, I got used to being alone. Basketball quite often became my companion whether I was playing Knock Out in Redmond, Wa.; 21 in Grapevine, Texas; or Pick-Up in the Ahwatukee Foothills of Phoenix; I was never alone in that sense.

Sometimes I would spend hours by myself at night in local parks working on my turn-around jump shot or free throws. That alone time was some of my most quality time. It was never about getting better at basketball. That was a side effect. It was an existential act where I could get lost in meditation. It was a soothing high then and one I still crave.

Last night I was able to get my fix as I participated in one of the most competitive basketball games I’ve been a part of in years.

I entered a the local basketball league here on Joint Base Balad a few weeks ago. Since we are on an air base, there is a mix of both Army and Air Force teams. My team is pretty competitive, although we lost our first game by three. It was our first time playing together, which is never a good way to start off if you want to win. Regardless, we’ve won every game since and the team that we faced last night was the pride of the Air Force squads, and one that we were encouraged to take seriously.

They were no joke. After wining the tip, they scored 8 consecutive unanswered points. We were dizzy trying to keep up. We were frazzled after the first 3 minutes. Their defense picked us off right and left as we scrambled to find our groove. It wasn’t until a fast break two-point conversion by one of our point guards that we were able to reset our emotions. 8-2, Air Force over Army; game on.

I slipped into aggressive mode with this newly won confidence. I know that I won’t be on the court too long. We have too much talent, and I’m not 19 anymore. I drew two fouls quickly, but in doing so I shook their confidence to score inside, and I also managed to convert on offense both scoring and with assists. One euphoric high coming up.

When I eventually took the bench with a score gap of two, I could see that it wasn’t just me that was feeling good. As I watched both teams go back and fourth, it was competition at its best. The commitment of all of these players to the stylized joust was like watching dueling ballerinas with the spinning drives and the drop-step layups. Even egotistical one-on-one challenges resembled a pax de deux. This was not about achievement. It was about the moment as players pushed each other to their performance peaks.

After the game, everyone gave their respects to the other teams and the celebratory high-fives to each other. It was a glorious victory for our team, but one that will be forgotten the next time we step on the court.

I recently ran into a guy my age at the chow hall that I play pick up with regularly. He was walking with a limp.

“Why don’t you go to the doctor or take some time off,” I asked.

“I tried,” he said as he hobbled away, “but I can’t.

“It’s the love for the game.”

Junky.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The pullout method

2009.07.07

I received a request recently, regarding some coverage of what is going on in Iraq now that June 30 has come and gone.

First, for those of you who may not follow news in Iraq now that it is not an exciting combat zone, June 30 was the deadline for U.S. troops to pull out of the cities; you know, places like Baghdad and Basra. This is an effort to  give the Iraqis more control of their country and for the U.S. to start to pull out.

Pulling out will be a delicate maneuver. We don’t want to pull out prematurely because we might not leave the Iraqis felling like they got what they needed from us, and if we pull out too slow … well, we could end up giving birth to a whole new insurgency.

However, we have spent a lot of time and effort — thanks to the vision of our godsend General Petraeus — fixing mistakes that were made early on in the war by, first, recognizing this was an insurgency and treating it as such, then putting together low-budget Special Forces teams call MiTTs, PiTTs or NPiTTs — the key being the “TT” which means Transition Teams” — to embed with Iraqi units and train them to be able to protect their own cities.

So far it seems to be working. The Iraqi Security Forces are coming into their own as protectors, and we are pulling out of the cities with a few exception. For example, there was some gerrymandering at a FOB in Baghdad that redrew the city limits around it so it wouldn’t technically be in the city. That, of course, is a story I read a few weeks ago in the Christian Science Monitor, so I haven’t heard if this was for certain. Also, Mosul is a hot spot, so an exception was made there as well according to news reports.

As for how it affects me, I have to pay more attention to my unit’s property. Now that I am out of Basrah, and with my unit in Balad, my role has shifted from news-writer guy to supply monkey. Yes, I feel — and at times look — like Ben Stiller in Zoolander when he was dressed up like a monkey banging his brass symbols while the photographer yelled “Dance Monkey, Dance!”

Along with accounting for my units property, all supply folks are tasked to get ready to move everything out of country. Yes everything. This won’t be an easy feat and it won’t happen overnight. Remember, this war has been going on since 2003 and every unit that came through here brought more gear than they needed because they didn’t know for sure what to expect. And, as a result, a lot of the stuff they didn’t need was left behind and guys like me have to account for it and get it out of here, so we can be good stewards of tax payer dollars. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of shipping containers worth of miscellaneous stuff floating around country. My supply room has multiple fake Christmas trees stuffed into the top shelf in the back corner, as well as an overabundance of office supplies.

It will be quite a task to get everything consolidated, packed and shipped, and one I’m not too worried about because I’m almost out of here. I will get the ball rolling and the next guy will do what he can to keep it moving. Eventually, we will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. And for now, we’ll keep hoping this war ends soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Rockets red glare, other stuff

2009.07.06

I received an e-mail from my cousin the other day reminding me that I still have a blog that I am supposed to be maintaining. Oh yeah. Well, I’m getting short. My time here in Iraq is in the final weeks. Of course, I can’t tell you exactly when I’m leaving or I’d have to do something cliche like kill you. Regardless, I should still tell you what’s going on.

First of all, we just celebrated our nation’s independence from British rule a couple of days ago. With it, there was some red glare of rockets — just like the song — provided by the local Iraqis who hate us. Okay, maybe that’s a little judgmental. They could have been trying to get us in the spirit of things by shooting at us; who knows. Either way, the weather was perfect for an indirect fire attack with dust allowing for visibility of about 20-30 feet and a Mars-like ambiance courtesy of the orange-red haze.

It’s funny, for the last few years on this date I find myself reconsidering if winning that war of independence was such a good idea. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t start thinking this up on my own, and I still love the idea of my country. It’s just that a British friend on mine planted this seed in my head a few years ago when when we where making banter:

“Yeah, we handed you your asses in the war. Those red coats made nice targets.”

“Yes, indeed because you lacked the civility to fight proper. Besides, we burnt your White House to the ground in 1812.”

“So, we rebuilt it and we are still our own country today!”

“Yes, yes, but you colonials still want to be one of us. Look at Virginia. They still regard themselves as a commonwealth. Visit Williamsberg and the British flag is flown everywhere. The West of your country is just a colony to the East just like you were to us previously. Face it, you want to be one of us.”

Hmm, I’m not sure I buy it all together, but he’s on to something.

There is a sense of history that favors British culture in places like Virginia and Pennsylvania. Obviously, those places were settled by the Brits. And, as far as colonialism goes,  those of us who descended from settlers in places like Arizona are loosing (or have lost) the uniqueness of the local culture to the cookie-cutter culture of the neo-carpetbaggers of the East with their big chain stores and restaurants. It is like colonialism all over again.

Although, after working with the British for six months, I can say that there are things I respect about their culture. I mean, they see thinking as virtue, not disobedience. They love a good battle of the wits. I watched various ranks go at it on a regular basis is Basrah. It was like verbal fencing, yet polite. Where as, we would regard that kind of behavior in our ranks as disrespectful and follow through with punishment if the senior had no comeback.

They also got something right with those six month deployments. That is about the burnout point for a lot of Joes. I can see leadership needing to stay on deployment longer, but not the grunts. I know some officers who say service is priviledge (while they collect fat checks), but to most of us enlisted, it’s a job.

Oh, and my favorite benefit they have is if you get out of the military before completing 20 years service, you still qualify for a partial pension, unlike us where it is the whole 20 years or nothing. Poverty sucker!

On the other side, we have better equipment to help fight the wars and dental programs to help us eat over cooked, dust covered meat at our Independence Day barbecues.

Happy Independence!

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized