Contract Hustlers

2009.06.26

Okay, there is something that I’ve been meaning to mention that I find very funny in a not so haha way.

Most, if not all, of our U.S. run bases in Iraq have extensive security all over the place. That makes sense. Many locals still want us dead for invading their country. However, it’s those who provide the security that I find odd. In this case it is Ugandans.

I don’t know if they came to Iraq as members of the Coalition of the Willing, or if they were an after though. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it they don’t wear a national patch, so I suppose they are just scabs.

Scabs — like the old union term meaning people who are willing to work for less and, as a result, others lose their jobs — in Iraq are the people who hold jobs that another soldier could be holding. Instead, politicians have gone in and dissected the military and turned certain fields into contract work — such as parts of logistics, food service and security tasks — and gave contracts to their buddies. Remember Chaney’s friends at Haliburton who got the uncontested contracts?

Some of the scab firms working here are KBR, Blackwater, Regis and others. The problem with these firms are that they are not always required to hire Americans, so our tax money goes away, not to mention a fat profit margin goes into some big business man’s pocket — and probably a lobbyist too —  and our economy doesn’t see it anymore. Not to mention, I now have to work with people whose motives are for sale. They are essentially mercenaries. Guns, or soup ladlers, for hire.

Let me avoid romanticizing a soldiers motives for a minute. I too get paid. It’s not all righteous work. We are not Martyrs. I think Henry Rollins said it pretty good: “It’s not an adventure/ it’s a job!” But, my point is that I had to swear an oath of loyalty to my country to get the job. That’s something that these others didn’t have to do.

It’s like in that scene from Braveheart where the evil king hires and Irish regiment to fight the Scots. Once they were paid and on the battle field ready to face William Wallace, they changed sides. No loyalty. No sense of obligation to the country they serve. this is what corner cutting gets us and what worries me about some of our “partners” here.

Regardless, you can find Ugandans all over our installations and when they’re not busy using our MWR facilities, they are  guarding our chow halls. Personally, I think guards at the chow hall are a bit overkill for a secure base, but there maybe something at play that I’m unaware of. I mean, I guess there could be some shady civilian contractors or Third Country Nationals who want to do something sinister at the dining facilities (which supports my theory), but Ugandan guards? I just think this is funny.

Let me put it another way. U.S. soldiers are the main patrons of the chow halls. We are in uniform at all times and armed. I’m a 6’6″ white boy who speaks one language: English. There is no mistaking why I am here in Iraq. Why do I need to show my identification to someone from another country? If there is a real threat at the chow hall on the secure base, then why don’t we have Joes check the IDs?

I know I’m starting to sound like an isolationist Republican or something. I know these people need jobs so they can take care of their families too. But what is to keep them from being a threat? How do we know they can be trusted?

To further my point, I spent six months at Camp Basrah, which was run by the British, and the chow halls there didn’t have guards, not to mention Ugandans, and their was never an incident. Okay, there was an entry point that would stop TCNs and civilians for ID, but gun totin’, uniformed soldiers where good to go. That made sense.

The more I look around at this war with all of its contracted labor, it looks like a hustle. When I was in Basrah it felt like we where doing something to benefit an end to this war, and the contractors I saw there seemed to make sense. But here, now, it seems we are making up things for contractors to do so some CEO can collect a fat check at the expense of the U.S. tax payer.

Again I’m not an expert on this subject, but it doesn’t look like rocket science. And when I hear senior enlist talk about what they are going to have their soldiers do because TCNs are doing their jobs, then something is wrong.

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Bootleg Hypocrisy

2009.06.14

Sundays are my relax days, as I’ve mentioned before, when I sleep late, read and catch up on any TV shows that I can find on DVD here.

Since I’ve been in Iraq, I’ve re-watched a couple of seasons of House, all the seasons of Arrested Development, Rome, a few seasons of the BBC hit Father Ted, all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season one through four of my new favorite program Weeds, and I just started the Buffy spin off Angel.

I know that seems like a lot TV but what can I say,  I have a hard time getting to sleep at night. Besides, it’s a great way to pass time and escape the misery of being so far away from home.

Had I not been here, I probably wouldn’t have watched all of these programs. I’m generally not a big TV viewer, and I don’t want to pay the mega-mart prices to buy all of those shows on DVD. However, that all changed for me here in Iraq. All of the programs I watched where bootlegs that I picked up for next to nothing at the jingly shop.

It is a bit ironical that here we are so far from home “bringing Democracy to this land and protecting our way of life,” when our way of life is driven by private property and, more specifically, copyrights so copyright owners can cash in multiple times for one completed job. It’s not like the artists – the people doing the work – own these copyrights.

Too bad our way of life wasn’t more like the Grateful Dead’s approach to their music. They encouraged bootlegging at their concerts because they relied on touring for their money more than record deals, or at least that is the story that I’ve heard before. Maybe I was intoxicated.  Anyway, their recorded music became more like a marketing tool that they didn’t have to pay for.  The more people recorded their work, the more other people were turned on to their sound, and the greater their fan base grew to attend future concerts. They toured for decades. Then again, what do a bunch of peace loving stoners know.

Back in Iraq, you don’t have to go far to pick up bootleg movies or software. Across the street from where I work there is a movie theater that always plays the anti-piracy ad during trailers says “downloading is stealing,” and just beyond that there is an area full of local vendors who sell these same pirated movies. You can find shops like this on every base in theater. The biggest threat is that you might get a copy that has the occasional silhouette crossing the film, or “next on Showtime” teaser crossing the screen.

In Iraq, the U.S. Government tolerates this abuse of the lifestyle that it has swore to uphold. It’s so accepted that U.S. Customs here has a policy that you are only allowed to take one copy of each movie home with you when you redeploy, as if that made it “right.” It’s like the marijuana policy in some states. It may be illegal, but it is only enforceable if you have more than a certain designated quantity.

As for me, I don’t hold any copyrights on movies, music or software and because I like cheap DVDs, I guess I don’t really care. This is a situation where I appreciate my government’s actions.  Besides, corporations screw people all the time. Why should I care when they get a taste of their own medicine.

Anyway, it is interesting to see the hypocrisy in action.

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If it’s good enough for Colby Buzzell, then an iPod playlist post is good enough for me

2008.06.08 

Okay, maybe my headline is a cheap shot at the Soldier who made his name by being one of the first, if not thefirst, Iraq War veterans to turn his collection of blog posts into a hardback book. I applaud him for that. I mean, a Soldier gots ta get paid!

However, I just hope he will get an editor for any future projects and avoid all the clichés.

Having said that, I will borrow one of his tactics that I found interesting, when not over used, for a blog format: the iPod playlist.

The playlist is a great way to set our generation of Soldiers apart from warriors past. In World War II they had their pin up girls, in Vietnam it was a necklace full of ears and today we have the iPod. It’s borderline amazing that you can’t get in an armored vehicle in Iraq these days without someone plugging in a portable music devise.

Evenpolitical cartoonist Gary Trudeau tipped his hat to the Soldier practice of iPodding (yes, I made up a verb) while on patrol with his character Toggle in his cartoon Doonesbury. I did find it sad that poor Toggle was IEDed, but so is life in modern Mesopotamia.

Anyway, I keep several playlists at the ready for different occasions like running on the treadmill, writing, chilling out or ignoring the guy next to me at work. I have different lists compiled with various genres to provoke different moods. They are all sanctuaries in their own way.

So, bellow are a couple of my favorite playlists. Thanks for the idea, Colby:

For Running (This is a very calculated set)
Sex Beat – The Gun Club
Seeing Red – Minor Threat
I Wanna Destroy You – Circle Jerks
Straight Edge – Minor Threat
My War – Black Flag (Okay, Colby, we got something in common)
Screaming at a Wall – Minor Threat
Skulls – The Misfits
Red Tape – Circle Jerks
I Just Want Some Skank – Circle Jerks
Eat You Alive – Hour of the Wolf
Spit it Right Back – Hour of the Wolf
Black Blood Transfusion – Hour of the Wolf
Wasted – Black Flag (with Keith Morris singing)
Pay to Cum – Bad Brains

For Ignoring the Guy Next to Me
Astro Zombies – The Misfits
Autonomy – The Buzzcocks
Beat on the Brat [Live] – The Ramones
Bottled Violence – Minor Threat
Career Opportunities – The Clash
Chatterbox – New York Dolls
Col-Leepin – Public Enemy
Debaser – Pixies
Die, Die My Darling – The Misfits
Everybody’s Happy Nowadays – The Buzzcocks
I Can’t Get Behind That – William Shatner & Henry Rollins
M-16 – Negative Trend
No Values – Hank Williams III
Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue – The Ramones

For Chillin’ Out
Frog-I-More Rag – R. Crumb
Frim Fram Sauce – Diana Krall
Functional – Thelonious Monk
Functions – Money Mark
Funky Broadway – Jimmy Smith
Gabby Glide Medley – R. Crumb
The Gala Event – The Beastie Boys
Gamma Ray – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
Gavotte en Rondeau – Ron Carter
Generique – Miles Davis
Ghetto Defendant – The Clash
Ghost Writing – Neko Case
Give a Man a Home – Ben Harper
Gnossienne #3 – Pascal Rogé
Go to Hell – Nina Samone
God Bless the Child – Billie Holiday
God’s Footballer – Billy Bragg
Good Morning Blues – Leadbelly
Got My Hand In Your Head – Money Mark
Grove Drops – Jimmy Smith
Jah Calling – Bad Brains
Everlong (acoustic) – Foo Fighters

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Ode to an Op-Ed editor

2009.06.08

I am a blogging soldier
Living in Iraq
They say I fight for freedom
But I’m just a Public Affairs hack

I’m told to spin my stories
In my blog I spin them back
It’s not the Army that does this
But officers who smoke crack

Subject, Verb and Object
Is my structure of choice
But when my phrases don’t sell rags
You take away my voice

“Suck it up” is what you tell me
I cannot pull the wool
You call it how you see it
I can’t get away with bull

Still, you continue to print my entries
Without coughing up a cent
Just remember that free copy for you
Does not pay my rent

But who am I to complain
You are the Fourth Estate
Most soldiers here serve for oil
But I’m concerned with your Constitutional fate

So please continue to serve our homeland
While I try and finish this war
And when I see you next
We’ll be drinking at the bar

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Dead dog, clear right

I’ve been pretty spoiled as far as travel within Iraq goes. Most of my trips have been via helicopter. That’s not really pampered treatment, generally speaking, but it is safer and more comfortable than riding in convoys.

I had my first full-fledged convoy experience last week when I traveled to Scania to cover a story about traffic lanes opening to Iraqi travelers along Main Supply Rout Tampa.

Scania is the U.S. Army version of a truck stop that sits not far south of Baghdad. It is the main stopping point for convoys coming from or going to Kuwait from anywhere north of it in Iraq. This camp, which engulfed a section of the country’s main supply rout until last week, offers a place for these convoys to safely park, get rest and grab some chow. It is small, but a paradise in its own way.

The broadcaster who accompanied me on the trip and I joked about how Scania would be the perfect assignment if it had a pool. It doesn’t have all of the luxuries of a post like Balad with its Pizza Huts, Taco Bell and Popeye’s Chicken, but it also doesn’t have all of the unemployed officers who get in the way of productivity, which makes it nice. The only downside was getting there.

Although I’ve ridden in armored vehicles through parts of Iraq before, this trip was the first time I had to endure eight hours of rattling around in the back of an up-armored vehicle in full battle rattle with a numb ass. I’m a pretty big person at 6’6″, so my body army is larger, and heavier,  than the average Joe’s. The constant gravitational pull on the plates squeezed my fifth point of contact into the lumpy bench under me. It didn’t take long for the blood to stop flowing. After about an hour I asked the gunner if he wanted to swap positions for awhile. He kindly refused as he looked down at me from outside with a big smile and bugs in his teeth. It was obvious that he knew about the ass numbing therapy.

Before we left, we had to attend a 48-hour briefing that described what threats were discovered the last couple of nights. We were set to travel with C Company’s Crazy Horse platoon from the Washington State National Guard’s 1st Bn, 61 Infantry Regt.. They were the battalion’s IED magnets according to some soldiers, but I was unable to verify if that was true or just infantry romance. Regardless, the briefing told us that four Improvised Explosive Devices were either set off by vehicles or found and taken out by safer means during the last couple of days. It was right after that when I discovered that there were three atheists in the platoon as all heads bowed for a prayer accept theirs.

I know that security has improved in Iraq during the last year, but four IEDs didn’t seem insignificant to me. I mean, IEDs are the leading cause of death for soldiers these days. We would have to hope for the best at this point and stay alert.

As we got underway, I was quickly put at ease as by the sound of chatter over the radios. The vehicles ahead of ours were calling out all of the potential hazards. It wasn’t until they called out “Dead dog, clear right” that I began to worry. This meant that there was a dead dog on the road and it was best to drive to the right of it to clear it, but what bothered me about it was the flash back I had to the 48-hour briefing.

Apparently one of the IEDs found a couple of days earlier had been placed in a dead dog. I don’t know if it bothered me that we had found something that resembled what had been used to hide a bomb, or that a dog was killed for this purpose. This dead dog turned out to be no threat, so we continued on.

It was about another 20 minutes before the radios where filled with chatter.

“IED, IED, IED.”

“Holy crap!” I thought to myself as my body tensed up until it ached.

An IED exploded and hit a vehicle.

This made my heart race until I found out that it didn’t hit us, but the convoy in front of us. It disabled the vehicle but luckily no one was hurt.

The business of planting IEDs is a funny thing. A staff sergeant in our convoy told me that a lot of the IED explosions turn out like that these days. He said if opposition forces wanted to get us they could. He said that lame attempts like these are due, a lot of the time, to poor Iraqis trying to feed their families. So many people in Iraq live bellow the poverty line now that they do what they can to make ends meet. One of those things it to plant bombs for money. Some times they are ineffective because they don’t really know what they are doing, and other times because they don’t want to hurt anyone. They just want to get paid. Another theory is that the Coalition is so close to pulling out of here, that hostile Iraqis are willing to wait us out.

After we cleared the hit convoy, I found myself full of anticipation for the remaining six hours of the trip.

“Will I be earning a Combat Action Badge tonight,” I thought, “or just an ulcer.”

Relief finally set in a few hours later when the sunrise splashed my face with warm rays. There is something reasuring about daylight, even if it is a false sense of security. About an hour later we arrived at our destination. Three Tylenol PMs  later, I was out.

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Ways to escape Iraq

2009.05.26

It is easy to forget that you are in a combat zone while serving at Joint Base Balad. Well, there are the constant roars of fighter jets taking off and soldiers in uniform everywhere, but those things become part of the landscape after awhile. It doesn’t take much for life here to become Complacentville.

Take yesterday for example. It was a half-day for me. We normally take Sundays off as a “day of reflection.” Leadership doesn’t call it a day off because it has something to do with serving 24/7 or for whatever reason. It’s like this annual publication our office is working on. We’re not allowed to call it a yearbook, so they call it a journal. It is a legal issue. The Army is not allowed to fund a yearbook because it has no historical value. It is basically a souvenir. So, they call it a journal and give it to everyone to take home. And that’s the same logic used to make Sunday a day off here.

Anyway, I had to work most of the day Sunday, so I took off part of Monday to make up for it. I decided that I would try the pool. I hear other soldiers talking about it all the time, but I just never felt like going before.

This pool is massive and it’s been here since Saddam was in power. It’s a competitive lane swimming pool, or at least it looks like it. It is large and deep with enough lanes for about a dozen people to race in if they chose to. It also has a three-tier diving platform. We, the Americans – or Coalition if you prefer, have divided this man-made pond into different sections. There are a couple of lap swimming lanes, a sectioned off area for diving and massive area for water volleyball. It is a pretty good set up. They even set up speaker systems for music, which isn’t the most appealing quality of the pool. Thank God for the iPod.

As I lounged poolside fantasizing about how perfect life would be if an ice-cold cocktail was delivered to my chair, I started to slip into a state of forgetfulness. I was reading a book recommended by Capt. Nevada: Babylon by Bus. It’s a story of two American jackasses who decided to take a taxi into Baghdad for, basically, the fun of it in 2004 – shortly before the insurgent uprising that proved the Neo-Con approach to the war to be just plain wrong. Anyway, the hot sun, baking skin, splashing sounds and laughter as well as the music made it seem like a community pool back home and Iraq was a distant land. It was a nice escape.

Later on I went for a run, then back to the CHU before heading for a shower. It was during my walk through the cement- walled walkway to the shower trailer that my mental escape was over. Balad lived up to its nickname, Mortaritaville, as a missiles impacted on the instillation within a couple hundred meters from where I was standing. I’ve heard several of these in the past, but this one was loud in comparison. As I took cover behind a barrier wall I could hear the whistle of a second round coming in.

I could hear sirens in the background. I have no idea what, if anything, they could have hit. I just kept think: “Am I gonna have to write this press release?”

There weren’t any more rounds, so I continued on to my shower. This experience didn’t bother me until I got into the shower. I started thinking about the last guy to die in Basra where I was stationed for the first half of my tour here. It was a guy who was in the shower. He died because a piece of shrapnel pierced his heart. By the time they figured out what was wrong with him, he was dead.

Rather than dwell on that thought, I finished up and went back my CHU to read again – escape.

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Iraqi public gains highway access; convoy managers adjust for lane loss

So I made it out the wire again, but I can’t say that I’m happy about it this time.  The story bellow is what I’m driving at. But to get a better idea of what led to this story, here is an example of the conversation that took place between myself and the command when I was given the assignment:

“SSG Thacker, there is a ribbon cutting that we need you to go cover. It is about turning some highway lanes back over the the Iraqis.”
“Wow! That’s great, sir. That’s real news.”
“Yeah, but because it’s not our battle space, you can’t write about that since the battle space owner’s will have a journalist there.”
“Then what am I writing about?”
“We have a unit down there that manages convoy traffic in and out of the base. Write about their part in all of this.”

So, I sent an e-mail to the commander of the unit down there and they have nothing to do with the handover. They own no part of it. The closest tie was that they had to manage convoys a little tighter because they lost some space they used for parking convoys.

Ultimately, I didn’t have to risk getting blown up by a IED going down to Scania because I could have taken the battle space owners story and localized it by making a phone call. Oh, and the convoy in front of mine was hit by an IED the night I travelled down, so I am a little pissed off about being sent here.

Anyway, when I return I’m sure I’ll get a canned response for my command: “The general gets what the general wants, so you had to go.”

I’m not sure neglegent acts are what the general want’s, but we’ll see.

The following is a combination of a real news story blended with an unrelated tale. I think that’s called psyops. Enjoy!

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher R. Hill says this is an important year because a new security agreement will be implemented where U.S. troops will begin a process of withdrawal during a speech at CSC Scania commemorating the opening of MSR Tampa June 2. The road opening comes at a time when Coalition Forces are handing over more security responsibilities to Iraq's government.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher R. Hill says this is an important year because a new security agreement will be implemented where U.S. troops will begin a process of withdrawal during a speech at CSC Scania commemorating the opening of MSR Tampa June 2. The road opening comes at a time when Coalition Forces are handing over more security responsibilities to Iraq's government.

CONVOY SUPPORT CENTER SCANIA, Iraq – Coalition forces opened two lanes of traffic along Main Supply Route Tampa to Iraqi travelers during a ribbon cutting ceremony here today.

This move comes as more security responsibilities are handed back to Iraq as a part of the new Security Agreement, which calls for Coalition Forces to be out of the cities by June 30.

Dozens of people from various agencies turned out to commemorate the event to include: U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher R. Hill; Gov. Salman Al Zargany, governor of Babil Province; U.S. Gen. David Elicero, Multinational Division South deputy commanding general for operations; Maj. Gen. Fadil Raddad, Director General of Babil Iraqi Police; members of Iraqi Press and soldiers who supported the mission.

“We stand on a route where people have traveled … for thousands of years,” said Hill. “This has been one of the main routes from the Fertile Crescent down to the sea.”

Hill talked about how the last five years were difficult for both Iraqi and Coalition forces, but it is important to recognize progress.

“When we have a moment like this, a moment where we can mark important progress, we should stop and think about those difficult times and think about how we are going to make a better future,” Hill said.

“Today we are going to reattach a very important service: this beautiful highway, which will now go from Baghdad down to the sea.”

Scania is the main refueling point for Coalition convoys traveling north or south between Kuwait and anywhere north in theater.

In addition to refueling, the facility serves as a linking point for convoy security elements to handover convoys moving goods through the area.

The highway was blocked to local traffic early on in the war to protect CSC Scania from insurgent threats, forcing locals to take a slow, bumpy dirt road around the facility.

Recently, the Army Corps of Engineers and contractors moved T-walls into the highway’s median, opening up the two southbound lanes to local traffic. This was a major disruption in the way business was conducted by the 37th Movement Control Team, a U.S. Air Force unit augmenting the U.S. Army to manage the flow of convoys coming and going from the truck stop.

“With the construction on the southbound lanes, we had to convert four lanes into two lanes,” said Hannah Grewatz, 37th MTC commander. “The convoys going north and convoys going south both had to use the northbound lanes, which created more of a traffic issue than a parking issue.”

Previously, the MSR was holding about 1,200 vehicles before the T-walls where moved. They lost about 400 parking spots due to the reconstruction.

“We were getting 600 to 800 vehicles per night, and now we can only take 300-400 due to the construction,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Corwin Stone, a shift leader with the 37th MCT. “It was difficult to get convoys in, refueled and parked.”

Stone said that they improved on preplanning convoy arrivals and learned how to stage vehicles on the MSR with limited room.

“You don’t know when each convoy is coming in, so you have multiple convoys waiting to come through, refuel and press on out,” Stone said.

“It was very hard at first, but we got it down.” CSC Scania is south of Baghdad, outside of city limits, and will continue to serve as a logistical support center.

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