Saturday, November 14, 2009

Happy Birthday Ma'am!

Okay, so we all missed it. She was under the radar, slipped right past us; played like it was no big deal and turned one year older without so much as a peep.

I don't know how it could have happened, but somehow, in the confusion of the day we missed that Maj. Daneker said goodbye to 28 and said hello to, what is now ma'am? Oh, that's it, 29!

She was a little sneaky about her big day and never said a word about it, though she probably thought at least one of us would remember, we didn't. She usually puts the birthdays for the month up on the calendar for everyone to see. She is, after all, the keeper of the unit calendar. But, mysteriously, hers was not there for all to see and out of ignorance and a lack of the First Sergeants planning, we missed her special day.

In spite of our folly though, I just want it to be said that we all wish you a happy birthday with many happy returns.

I know the picture here is pretty blurry, but it really captures her the way she is. She is always moving, always has a party on her mind and almost always has a smile to boot. Almost is the key word, I've seen a few days when the smile goes away and I'll be honest those aren't very happy days for me. But, usually the smile returns and so does the levity.

Sorry we missed it ma'am. As a belated gift, I'll take one day off our countdown calendar tomorrow, that should bring a smile to your face.

Monday, October 19, 2009

No Trace Left of the Buffalo Trace

A few weeks back while driving out to the air terminal at Baghdad International Airport to pick up a couple of our Soldiers returning from a mission, I had the radio turned up listening to an AFN (Armed Forces Network) music program. It was a stateside program called The Woodsong's Old Time Radio Hour. The program features American folk music (mountain, country, bluegrass, folk, etc) from mostly lesser known artists mixed in with a few well known musicians. As I drove I was swept away by the music and the moment. It had a bit of an impact on me so I later wrote an email to the host of the show telling him how much I enjoyed the broadcast.

A few days later I got emails from him and a host of others representing the sponsors of the show in Lexington, Kentucky. They asked if they could read my email on the air and to reprint it in a publication to share my experience with the audience. I agreed, and they did.

In one case, a sponsor said he would like to recognize the unit for our service out here and asked if he could send us a special gift. I told him that wouldn't be necessary, but that if he wished to I would pass his care package along to our Soldiers.

A few weeks later I did in fact receive a package from him. Like you might expect I was excited to get a package from the states. Such surprises are always welcome out here. With great anticipation, I opened the box and unwrapped the protective packaging around the gift. It was a beautiful cherry wood box with the words "Lexington, Ky - Horse Capital of the World" artfully burned into the lid of the wooden box. Sliding the lid from the box I found staring at me a bottle of pure bourbon whiskey - here now was the response I sent to that nice Kentucky gentleman.

Mr. Lord,

I just wanted to get back to you to say thank you for the gift you sent to our unit here in Iraq. I wish I could tell you we had a great great time sipping it down and feeling the moment. But alas, it was not meant to be. The bottle itself arrived fully in tact and beautiful to the eye. However, Soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan fall under what we call, General Order Number 1, which dictates that we cannot consume or receive alcohol.

Upon opening your package, one thought came to mind. It's a bit cliche, I know, but it had to be said, "oh well, it's the thought that counts." And indeed it was. Moments later I brought your gift to the attention of our battalion executive officer who, with a smile and a lick of the lips said, "oh well, it's the thought that counts."

At his direction and in order to keep the whole situation on the up and up, he directed me to take the bottle of Buffalo Trace back to the unit, gather the soldiers together, tell the story of how your gift came to be and then, as a group, walk across our road to a small lake here on our base and hold a funeral for the mellow Bourbonous liquid.

With the familiar squeak of the cork, I gently twisted the cap from the bottle which was followed by the savory aroma of sweet Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. Though we could not imbibe, I made a pseudo-offering of good will to my Soldiers and passed the bourbon soaked cork around the group. From one Soldier to the next, nostrils flared wide in and attempt to gather in the fullest extent of the familiar bouquet.

With one last sniff and the passing of the cork back into my hand. I gently upended the Buffalo Trace Whiskey and poured the aged concoction into the lake. It was as if a longtime friend had met his demise, and we band of brothers had gathered to send him across the great divide. The moment passed quietly, and like good Soldiers, we gently picked up our weapons and returned to the mission. Gone was our distilled brother, but not forgotten. We shall meet again, another day and at another time.

Thank you so much for your kind gift. It was greatly appreciated and the memory of it's arrival and eventual emptying will long be remembered.

All my best to you and yours.

1SG Anthony Martinez
211th MPAD
Baghdad, Iraq

I mentioned in one of my earlier posts how grateful we are to receive care packages, that has not changed, we love them. However, a little reminder - the gift of alcohol, no matter how well intentioned and how well received will do nothing to wet our lips and everything to whet our appetites. Until we return, have a drink on our behalf, I have plenty of Soldiers waiting to catch up with you when they return. Responsibly of course!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Different View of Iraq

If you have visited any of my soldiers' blogs (click on a soldier portrait on the right to visit another blog) you have likely seen some of the photos and stories they've produced about our great men and women in uniform serving here in Iraq.

In contrast, I thought I'd share a few photos of some of the people in Iraq whom we serve and who we hope will find a positive benefit to our service here.

Yesterday I joined one of my soldiers, SSG Mark Burrell, on a mission out to some of the more rural areas of Baghdad. While there, I captured a few images of the men, women and children we met.

For the most part these folks were friendly and talkative. I don't mind telling you that there is some reticence for soldiers to totally buy into the friendliness exhibited since there have been occasions in this conflict when once-friendly greetings turned to soured relationships. That said, the families we met yesterday were cordial, pleasant and there were enough smiles to go around for everyone.

We visited two small villages and were greeted promptly by the family elder, then quickly mauled by the children of the house. While it is a breath of fresh air to have such a greeting, the fact remains that we operate in a dangerous place and social moments surrounding our arrival can be distracting when we are trying to establish a defensive posture to protect ourselves from unknown threats.

However, we were out with some great soldiers who maintained their focus and a keen watch on the surrounding area that enabled us to get our job done without any hitches.

On the way back from our trip I asked the group of soldiers in my Humvee how they felt about their efforts out here. At the top of their responses were comments about the kids and how when they see these kids they are reminded of their own. The majority of the response wasn't about shooting guns, how the operation went or how the surge worked famously, it was about the kids.

I could understand that, I have three children back home too; a son and two daughters. For a parent in this situation, it's hard not to gravitate to the innocence of these children. It's a reminder that the future of Iraq just as the future of America, is in the hands of our children, in the hands of their children.

At our second stop, one of our soldiers brought out a soccer ball to give the kids. This is a normal practice that helps establish commonality between the local populace and U.S. forces; it's an ice breaker. Before long the kids, their fathers and our soldier were playing a little soccer. I'm not saying that soldiers bearing soccer balls in Iraq are going to change the world. But, I can tell you this, in that moment, amidst the smiles and laughs of adults and children, and the bouncing of a soccer ball, life here in Iraq was a great deal less threatening and more peaceful.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What It Takes to Tell The Story of the American Soldier

Be there! That's the simplest answer I can offer - not just physically but emotionally.

The story of the American Soldier is told from a variety of different perspectives. There are network and newspaper reporters, freelance journalists, comics, entertainers, politicians, commentators, even the enemy who all want to tell our story.

But, hard as these folks may try, they can never tell our story the way we can. I'm not saying they are incapable of telling the truth or of relaying the actual facts of our work here but, what they cannot do in their dispatches is tell the story from Our Point of View.

My soldiers aren't here for a few weeks to cover an event or operation and then retire for the evening to a well appointed hotel or return to the comfort of their living rooms back home. At the end of the day an Army Journalist puts his camera and pen down but, keeps his rifle only to live the same life as those whose lives he documents.

But, what about those civilian journalists who embed with the troops on the battlefield, aren't they essentially living the life of a soldier? No, they aren't! My soldiers are volunteers who do this not just for a living but, in most cases to justify the life of freedom they lead. We aren't here just to tell a story, but to tell our own story - to document our own sacrifices.

We are not merely journalists on the battlefield, we are also combatants on the battlefield. With one eye we look through our lens in order to capture the historic moments of our battle buddies while we keep another eye peeled for enemy threats to ourselves and our comrades in arms.

If an enemy engagement breaks out, our first responsibility is to the team not the network executives back home. We drop the camera and bring out the M4. The enemy doesn't see our camera as a reason to withhold fire but our weapon as a reason to direct fire upon us. This makes telling our own story different than those outside the uniform. Our sweat and blood contributes to the success of the teams we cover. Our boots on the ground walk the same path as the boots of the soldiers with which we live. At the end of day we share in the success of the mission we cover because it's our mission too.

To date my soldiers have produced more than 600 print, video, radio and photo stories for release to the world. Many of these stories are used in part or in whole to fill the pages and airwaves of newspapers, magazines, radio and news programs around the world. It is rare, if ever, that you will see the names of my soldiers in the by line or photo credits and you know what? that's okay, because when it is all said and done, seeing a photo in a newspaper that we captured or hearing a sound bite on TV, that we collected, means we did our job, we told our own story - we accomplished
our mission.

It's ironic really that by tradition army journalists don't toot their own horn and write or produce stories about themselves, and yet the very completion of the stories we produce about the American soldier truly is a story about ourselves.

This past week my soldiers reported on foot patrols, air assaults, humanitarian events, civil improvement projects, the Iraqi culture and a huge variety of other subjects happening in and around the Baghdad area. Their mission? Tell the story of America's men and women in uniform, one soldier at a time. Their stories represent hours of walking, traveling, interviewing, transcribing, editing, sweating, contemplating and not much sleeping.

Before we left Bryan, Texas we used to joke around about how we were going to Iraq to report the stories of real soldiers; the story of the infantryman out on the front lines; the story of the private standing watch in an observation post in the middle of the city; the story of a team of soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad in a Stryker fighting vehicle; the story of the sergeant who drives dangerous roads to distribute supplies to bases around the theater; the story of the soldier that cleans the dining facility three times a day so everybody has a clean place to get a bite. You know - real soldiers.

The truth of the matter is, my journalists are "real soldiers". They spend their days and nights doing a dangerous job to capture the smiles, sweat and tears of their brothers and sisters on the battlefield - not for the glory, not for the money but for each other. That's what a real soldier does - they take care of their battle buddies. My soldiers do what they can to tell the story of America's sons and daughters - from another soldiers perspective.

It may sound corny to some, even a little bit of a stretch to others, but when my soldier is in harms way doing a job our Commander in Chief asks them to do; to leave all the comforts of home and family behind in order to tell the world of the sacrifices we make to maintain liberty and stability in a dangerous world, I call that unselfish heroism. I'll bet their families feel the same way.

So, here's to my soldiers, my journalists on the field of battle; doing what it takes to tell the story of the American soldier - their story, our story. Thanks.


Sgt. Jon Soles, an army photojournalist from South Carolina, assigned to the 211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, documents an indirect fire threat deterrence mission with the 2nd Battalion of the 112th Infantry Regiment in Baghdad. (photo by 1SG Anthony Martinez)

While on patrol in Baghdad, 211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment video journalist, Sgt. Stephanie Logue of Corpus Christi, Texas, takes a moment to let an Iraqi child see the images in her camera. (photo by SSG Mark Burrell)

211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment print NCOIC, SSG Mark Burrell, a native of Chicago, Ill., captures images of soldiers in a Baghdad market. (photo by Sgt. Stephanie Logue)

Sgt. Erik Fardette who hails from Honolulu, Hawaii and is assigned to the 211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, prepares for a ground shot of MND-B soldiers on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq. (photo by SSG Mark Burrell)

211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment photojournalist SSG Peter Ford, who calls Texas his home, gets ahead of the action to capture images of soldiers on Patrol. (photo by SSG Mark Burrell)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Enough With the Dust and Heat Already

I'm sure you're tired of hearing about it, but I assure you that you are not as tired of hearing about it as we are in living in it.

This is how a dust storm really looks. Imagine having this hanging in the air 24 hours a day for days on end. It gets in your hair, your teeth your throat, your lungs and licking your lips to rescue them from the heat of the day only ends up with a tongue full of dust.

I just know the day will come when some medical study, sponsored by the VA, will reveal that soldiers serving in Iraq are likely to suffer from some respiratory disease in connection with breathing this stuff for a year. Mark my words!

On a given morning you can wake from a nights rest to find that a layer of dust, not small amount, has settled on every exposed surface in your room. This is a sure sign a dust storm has arrived. Another tell tale sign of the advent of a dust storm is the color of the sunlight filtering through the suspended dust in the air. In your room the morning light shines through the window an amber or orange color.

I am told that this years dust storms are the worst seen here in several years. I haven't been tracking the exact number of days we have been "socked in" by these storms, but over the past three weeks I would say we are in the 75% range. It's simply amazing. But, here's the 
positive side. When the dust arrives, the temperatures drop. It's a trade-off, I know, dust or high temps. Pick your poison.

On the day I took this picture of the temperature the temp in the shade was 122, the temperature in direct sunlight was 126. When the dust comes in it can drop 10 - 15 degrees. I know, that still makes the temp in the low 100s, but it feels good. Heat is all relative here.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The 4th of July and Other Important Events

So, tomorrow is the 4th of July, America's day of Independence. A few days ago it was June 30th, a recently declared holiday for Iraq, marking the day U.S. Troops left the city of Baghdad.

In both cases, they came and will likely go without much fanfare for us here. I'm not saying that on the 4th of July we won't attempt to make the day seem somehow different from any other day. But, for the most part, days of any importance pass without much notice.

As for June 30th, a sort of mock Independence day for some Iraqi's, nothing different happened at all. We may not be inside the Baghdad city limits, per se, but we haven't exactly packed up our bags, shut off the lights and closed the door either. We are still here. 

In fact, truth be told - there are other days we celebrate that get more attention than national holidays, or operational milestones.

My commander celebrates Thursdays. Thursday is Mexican food day in the DFAC. She has a "Thursday" calendar hanging in her office with every Thursday left in our deployment. Each day displays a different image of a Mexican food cartoon character. Every week on Mexican Food Thursday, she announces to the whole office how excited she is that she gets to mark off another Thursday. For her, every Thursday is like the 4th of July.

Paydays. SPC Johnson and PFC Ward both celebrate these days. It's not a celebration of the pay itself, at their rank that really isn't much to celebrate, although it's not too bad for a young soldier. They celebrate paydays because it signifies that yet another two weeks has passed and that the end of the deployment is one less paycheck closer to home. The 4th of July is great, but two weeks closer to going home is really something to celebrate.

These are just a couple examples of the kinds of days we celebrate here. They are seemingly insignificant, but they become little celebrations that make the day of their occurrence better than any 4th of July, any 4-day weekend, or pagan holiday that comes and goes while we are here on Iraqi soil.

There are a myriad of odd days and events that each of us find cause to celebrate. Here are just a few I have noticed that people get excited about.

0800 and 1500 daily - The time the solid waste truck comes and sucks up the port-a-john contents, hoses down the inside and restocks the toilet paper

Sunday 0900 - The one day a week we don't have to get up early to be to work by 0800 or at PT by 0630

Every Thursday - The day our video magazine is released to media each week

Any day a soldier returns from an extended mission

Cancelled meetings - Any day a meeting is cancelled is cause for at least a 5 minute celebration.

The arrival of care packages from home

As menial as these events may seem, they are banner days for us. They are often the topic of conversation throughout the day - and while we may not be sending up fireworks or broiling some burgers on the barbecue to celebrate the events, they are the moments that make some of our dull days more eventful.

In our little world, July 12th can be just as anticipated and eventful as the 4th of July back in the states.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How To Pass The Time When The Time Passes Slowly

Let's face it - not every day spent in Iraq is a day filled with action and adventure, courage and patriotism. There are days like today, when you are literally bored out of your ever loving mind.

And just so nobody out there thinks we are constantly bored either, I can assure you there are great many more days of action and adventure.

With those bases covered, I want to focus on the days of boredom. Any deployed soldier knows that slow days are our enemy - days when the time passes so slowly that you feel like you have been and will be in Iraq forever. The way to fight this enemy is with busywork, whether it is directed from higher authority or at your own initiative, busywork helps the slow days to move along a little faster.

However, if you have a choice between busywork at the hand of the commander and first sergeant or to take the initiative to find your own - the latter is always, hands-down, without argument the best way to go.

Of course living on a forward operating base (FOB) in the middle of Iraq doesn't offer much in the way of entertainment and variety when you are looking for a way to keep busy. So, for most of us we make a new project for ourselves or find some out-of-office (like out-of-body) diversion to keep our minds occupied and the second hand spinning.

Here are  a few examples.

A few weeks ago, SSG Burrell came to me with a proposal to enhance the visual appeal of our office. Note to all future leaders who may lead SSG Burrell someday - keep him so busy he doesn't have time to think up "projects".

"I have it all planned out first sergeant," says Burrell. "I've taken measurements, we can get some wood and I've made a drawing for the KBR contractors to follow. I even talked to 1Lt Sarratt and he thinks it's a good idea."

For the record, another interesting note about Burrell; when he wants to do something, he goes to everybody else to get a consensus about his scheme before he approaches those who make the final decision.  I believe he does this to show how he isn't the only one who believes in a project or idea -  it's his way of "closing the deal". 

"Alright, tell me what you want to do," I say.

"I want to have some framed boards placed on the walls in the hallway of the building where we can hang examples of the photos we have taken on assignments out in the field," he says. "Then I want to have a special board strategically placed 
across from those boards where we can hang framed portraits of ourselves so when people come to visit us in the MOC (media operations center) they will know who each of us are. I've talked to everybody about it and they all think it would be a great idea," He adds.

"How are you gonna pay for it?" I say.

"Well, what do you mean?" he says, "you just tell KBR to make it and they just do it!"

After some discussion about how to get the project off the ground, I agreed and away he went. It wasn't a full time job to make it happen, but when he had time to follow up on the project the busy work he had created for himself helped the slow times pass, and in the end we have a shrine of photos in our hallway - most of which are SSG Burrell's or at least 25 - 30% of them. It looks good and it really does add to the aesthetics of the place.

There are other ways to pass time too, though not quite as involved as Burrell's Board.

There's a bridge that crosses over a canal on the way to the DFAC (dining facility) here on Camp Liberty. On any given day, around the meal hours you can see a collection of soldiers standing on the bridge gazing into the water. Some are pensive, some are laughing, some are being mischievous. You see, it's not just feeding time for the restless soldiers, it's also feeding time for a school of canal carp and box turtles gathered in the murky green canal water below the bridge.

Some soldiers stay for just a few seconds and others stay for a while to feed the fish and turtles the leftover bread, cookies, cereal, chicken or whatever morsels they have left from the breakfast, lunch or dinner meal. I've done it myself, even in the hottest temperatures of the day. I don't know why it fascinates us so much, but it does, and those few moments we spend on the bridge just seem to help the moments pass by a little quicker.

I think part of why we are drawn to the bridge is that when we arrived here over 5 months ago the little swimmers were just tiny fishys and turtlettes. Now, after eating Coco Puffs, special K, herbed chicken and leftover dinner rolls, the once tiny animals are getting huge and it's fun to watch their progress. The bigger they get, the closer we are to heading home. Maybe that's not what's on our minds all the time, but it is a marker for the passage of time.

Blogging, reading, coffee, religion, golf and bootleg movies. These are a few more things we've found to help pass the time on slow days and for the down time between missions. As I mentioned before, we actually don't have too many boring, do nothing days around here. Most of the down time we have is between missions. Sometimes a couple hours here, twenty minutes there and late nights in our CHUs.

For folks like SFC Burke, PFC Ward or SGT Fardette this is the time for coffee. Discussions about coffee, what's the best way to make it, what's the best blend, who can we get to send us free coffee. I know it doesn't seem to be a way to pass time but it is. It's not so much about the content of what you do to pass time, it's the mental break you get from being here that makes the time pass.

For the commander, blogging has become a way to pass those in between moments. She is one of our most consistent bloggers and she like to read too. It's her way of getting away. 1Lt Sarratt has taken it upon himself to help me pass the time by teaching me to drive a golf ball - how to stand, how to hold the club, how to keep your eye on the ball, how not to throw my back out in the process.

Some lift weights, others sit and watch bootleg copies of recently released movies. Heck, we had a copy of the new Star Trek movie here on Liberty before the week of its release was out. I personally spend my after hours time with other soldiers of my religious faith.

That's the way it is out here. Every hour is counted, every moment away from home is apparent. Time does not get away from you here, whether on mission, eating chow, cleaning your weapon, writing a story, preparing a brief or taking a dump in the latrine, the time does not pass without notice. So, we fill it up with something that makes the time well spent. Minor things maybe, but certainly not mindless.

Most of my blogs take several days to complete since I try to write them in between the normal events of the day. Today, I have a block of time to focus. And well, what do you know, almost 2 hours have passed and I have a completed blog. I guess that's two hours closer to home.