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.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Several Things

The Heat

You may have heard the saying, “the dog days of Summer”, in reference to those hottest days in summer when the sun’s heat sinks into the very soul of your body causing an almost uncontrollable desire to simply sit and do nothing - like a bloodhound on the porch of a dilapidated wood-slat house in a holler of the West Virginia hills. Do you know that feeling?

Well, that’s what it feels like 24 hours-a-day, 7 days a week here in Iraq. We all just feel like doing that bloodhound thing. However, wish as we might, to sit on the porch and drool our way into oblivion, the mission goes on and our porch sleepin’ days will just have to be a mirage on the desert sands for now.

It’s simply amazing just how hot it can get here and we have yet to reach the hottest part of the summer. A few days ago temps climbed to an incredible 120 degrees! Now maybe in central California and some parts of the great state of Texas that’s no big deal, but for us it’s only the beginning – there’s promise on the horizon for that temperature to go up and up and up.

Now imagine yourself in this weather. Perhaps you have on your favorite OP shorts (a throwback to the 80’s there) and maybe your favorite pink Izod LaCoste pullover (second throw back, okay so I’m an old guy), multi-colored Vans sneakers and a pair of Vuarnet’s (alright I was born in the 60s and found fashion in the 80s – so sue me). The bottom line is – we don’t have those things here.

The fashion my soldiers are sporting these days is a set of full-length flame-retardant cargo pants and long sleeve shirt, 35-pound protective vest, leather boots, 3-pound helmet, gloves, knee-high boot socks, Camelback type personal hydration system, M-4 Rifle (6 lbs), 7lbs of ammo, and up to 10 lbs of video or photographic equipment. Do the math and you’ll find that when our soldiers step outside the wire they have added anywhere from 60-70 pounds to their body weight (not including their snacks and goodies to chomp on during the day, their notebooks, tapes, extra batteries and so on).

The temperatures are still climbing and my soldiers are still working, no dog days here. I’ve had my days in the sun too, but this is their time and they are doing a great job. I just thought you should know what your sons, daughters and friends are doing out here and the conditions 
they do it in. 

I dont' tell you this so you can develop a greater appreciation for them, those feelings are probably pretty strong already. I tell you this so you can know just how dedicated these great soldiers are. They go out every day in hopes to tell the story of the American soldier here in Iraq - no matter the weather, no matter the danger. I just thought maybe someone should tell their story too.

The Dust

Two days ago we had an incredible dust storm. Now, I know I have mentioned this in a previous post about how crazy the dust storms are here in Iraq. But, this one was simply amazing. Think of a blizzard in the dead of winter somewhere in Wisconsin (or some other icy cold place of your choice). This was a dust blizzard. Hot winds gusting, dust blowing so thick you can’t see 4 feet in front you. At the same time the dust was so fine that it blew in through every nook and cranny of our CHU’s, filling our rooms with a billowing mini storm inside.

In the morning, although the dust was still settling, there was literally a blanket of dust all around. It reminded me of the pictures and video I saw back in 1980 when Mt. St. Helens erupted and ash had settled everywhere. The dust left behind had stolen any color around us, everything was the color of a potato skin just digged up. With so much dust still hanging in the air, there was a lingering smell that reminded me of those first days of summer when you sweep all the dust out of the garage for the first time – musty and dusty.

I’m including a picture here to give you a glimpse of what a storm like this looks like as it rolls in (I'm trying to find out the name of the photographer). This is the edge of the storm that hit us as it comes in over the Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory. We’ve been coughing it up ever since (okay, that might be a bit gross).


About 50% of the unit has now or presently is on R&R (rest and recuperation leave). Even as we speak one of our soldiers is headed to meet family and friends in Thailand. That’s a pretty exotic place and of course most of us haven’t and won’t go to such places, but it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that no matter how or where we choose to spend our 15 days of time away, the fact that it is away from here and with those we love most, is what makes the difference.

We are about half way through the deployment now and even though we are busy and doing a great job, the tempo of all work and very little play can wear you down. I’ll be honest, there are times here that feel like a prison sentence. Accommodations, although nice compared to other places here in Iraq, are still pretty crappy. From shower points and latrines to round the clock sweating and long walks to get a meal. No matter how much we love our work here, this lifestyle eventually gets to you and you need a break.

I went in May. It took me 49 hours to get home, from the moment I left my CHU to the minute I stepped off the plane to see my family in Idaho. The two weeks that followed were worth every second it took to get back home. You forget how colorful life is outside of Iraq. Back in the states, trees are green, cars have colors (other than tan, white or dust); clothes have patterns and variety. There are other food groups besides chicken, chicken and chicken. The latrine is just a few steps away from the bedroom and you don’t have to put on all your clothes to get there. Nobody is yelling at you to get your work done; instead they say things like, “just sit down and relax for a while”, “watch TV”, “take a nap,” and “I love you.”

I love the Army, I really do, and I love my job, but nothing compares to being home. For those that have had their soldier come home for R&R, I hope you enjoyed your time together. For those still looking forward to that R&R, I encourage you to spend it wisely. Make every moment count, don’t quibble over the small stuff, focus on the quiet moments, don’t over plan, don’t try to live a lifetime in two weeks, you simply can’t do it. Just spend time talking, laughing and looking forward. Before you know it, we’ll all be home again.

That's all I have to say about that. Good day.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What Good Is A Single Sock?

I have learned for myself the value of a single sock. No doubt, many of you have experienced that washing machine oddity in which two socks go in and only one sock comes out. I can't explain how this phenomena occurs, but it does.

What most of us do, when this strange phenomena does happen, is simply wait a couple wash cycles to see if it shows up then we toss it in the trash. After all, what difference can one sock make without its companion snugly nestled up next to it?

I am here to tell you not to dump that sock too quickly. You never know when an orphaned sock can become your best friend. A few nights ago, after a long day of work and climbing temperatures coaxing my pores to open up and sweat like a dog, I determined to take a shower to get that shower fresh feeling back before heading to bed.

I prepared myself for the trek to the shower point, slipping on my PT uniform, grabbing my shower kit and shower shoes (you don't want to step in a shower without shower shoes since nobody knows what diseases from the feet of other boot wearers lingers on the shower floor). Then I reached for my towel. That's when the value of an orphaned sock became apparent to me.

Due to poor planning, I had put both of my towels (primary and alternate as I refer to them in Army speak), into the laundry at the same time. I had no towel. Looking around my CHU I considered my Courses of Action using the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). COA 1: I could use one of my T-shirts. This was a no go, the 2nd and 3rd order effects could cause a shortage in my underclothes later in the week. COA 2: Don't dry off at all. Also a no go, for me at least. I hate that feeling of clothes sticking to me, I might as well be sweating cause I would not achieve that shower fresh feeling I was longing to have. COA 3: Use that orphaned sock I had not yet thrown in the trash.

Thank the heavens for the MDMP, I was able to determine the best COA for my situation . . . I chose COA 3.

Without hesitation (the sign of a confident leader) I reached down to this single white athletic sock, clutched it in my sweat-salt covered hand and moved out to the shower point. As can be expected, the shower was everything one living in 120 degree weather and covered from head to toe in flame resistant clothing might expect - it was refreshing.

Sweeping the shower curtain aside with my now squeaky clean hand, I reached down to my orphaned athletic sock and began to dry off. I treated it just like any towel, stretching it across my back, moving it in a back and forth motion from the tops of my shoulders to my lower back (don't get excited now, I ain't that kind of man). At some point, my orphaned sock, now full blown towel, lost its absorbency and I had to wring out the excess water, but I was not dismayed. I continued on, proudly drying from head to toe in spite of the sideways glances from others in the shower area whom I am sure wondered about my mental state.

In the end, the little fellow was up to the task. Sure it was a tight stretch across the back. Maybe the absorbency of an old athletic sock doesn't compare to a teri cloth towel. And let's face it, drying off with a sock makes for an odd scene in a public shower, but the job was a success.

So, here's my AAR (After Action Review), my lessons learned (First Sergeants are always looking for lessons learned). At some point everything has value. There will be times when the seemingly useless will make all the difference. I plan to keep at least one orphaned sock around at all times. You never know what other capabilities a single sock might have. Who knows, maybe it will save my life some day.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ali, The Birdman of Baghdad

I recently made a trip to the International Zone (IZ) in downtown Baghdad. While I was there, SGM Troy Falardeau, a fellow public affairs puke like me, took me on the nickel tour of Camp Prosperity there.

As we walked, talked and toured the joint we happened upon a carpet salesman there who was holding a little fledgling sparrow in his hand. I couldn't pass it up, I just had to meet the little Iraqi with a little bird. Turns out he had more than just one bird, he has several. He kept a number of pigeons in a little cage across the street from his rug shop and apparently he kept his little bird in his pocket, when he wasn't perched on his finger. 

Oh, and one more thing. He said the little bird in his pocket wasn't actually a bird, but his son. It must be an Iraqi thing. At any rate, I nicknamed him Ali, The Birdman of Baghdad. Here's a clip of the Birdman.

Monday, May 4, 2009

What Do You Need? What Can I Send You?

I've been deployed a couple of times and I am always amazed at how this question is asked by so many people who know you are down range or going down range. They ask because they want to help. They want to support you on your mission; serving the country, defending freedom, living in semi-primitive conditions, being away from home, etc.

For many people, sending a care box filled with a few American goodies, American magazines, and anything American, is a simple way to show their support and concern - and you know what? We all appreciate it and look forward to those packages.

But, there are other care packages you can send, just in case you are wondering how you can show your support, that are just as effective and needed.

Today, I got an email from a former Sergeant Major of mine. It surprised me to find myself smiling, almost beaming as I read her message. It wasn't that the message was the most incredible and enlightening message I had ever received, that made me feel so good. It was that someone took the time to say hello, to offer words of encouragement and let me know that somewhere, someone was thinking of me.

This is the kind of care package I'm talking about - emails, letters, comments on a blog, writing on someone's facebook wall. Don't get me wrong, goodies are great, snail mail care packages are awesome, nobody will deny a delivery of that caliber but, sending a few heartfelt words in a letter or electronic message can really make a dull day brighter. 

Each time I put an entry in this blog, the text is automatically emailed to a select group of friends who I think will be interested to know what my unit is doing out here. Inevitably, a couple days after I publish a post I get an email or two from someone in that group who comments about the entry.

One of these folks usually pokes fun at my entries, sarcastically telling me how "touched he is" by my somewhat softy style of writing but, at the same time he offers a few words of encouragement to keep up the good work too. Another one often says how much he appreciates the work we are doing here and to tell my soldiers to hang in there. My wife makes comments too, telling me to stay tough and not to worry about things at home, that my Soldiers are doing a great job.

Each blog comment, email or letter from these folks, and others who have taken an interest in our lives out here, is just as good as opening a boxed care package from home. They are unexpected, personal and quite honestly they don't add to our calorie intake like all those goodies we get (not that they aren't wanted, you can always send those too).

So, if you're one of those people wondering what you can send and trying to figure out just what we need out here, I tell you this. A boxed care package will work just fine, but a quick note in the mail, a comment on one of our blogs or an unexpected email just might be what we need the most and it doesn't cost anything but a few minutes of your time.

Thanks to all our friends and family for your support, keep it coming. We look forward to hearing from you soon.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mustache Men in Iraq

Iraq is a country filled with mustache men. I'm just guessing here, but I believe it's one of those "cultural things".

Americans have a "cultural thing" too. It does involve the almighty mustache, but it's the motivation behind it that makes it different from the cultural norms we see here in the Mideast.

A couple days after we left the states, one of our compadres came up with the great idea for all men in the unit to grow out a mustache. Apparently this is  a time honored tradition among many Soldiers as they deploy - a rite of passage, as they say. 

The end result is that we feel a certain kinship with one another, having shared this hair growing experience. On the other side of the gender line, this rite of passage is equally inclusive. The females in the unit are able to watch a bunch of baby faced goofballs transform their persona's into the rugged Tom Selleck-like men that we wish we were. 

The slow and almost indistinguishable transformation provides the she-soldier with hours of entertainment and certain laughs, scoffs and general teasery (what good is a journalist who can't make up a word every once in a while) that comes with the childish competition we man-soldiers inflicted upon ourselves.

For one month the whiskers, if you want to call the fine hair on our upper lips whiskers, raced to some unknown end. A competition for what? Who has the bushiest, the most colorful, the most glamorous, the sexiest, manliest or most stylish? Who knows. The key thing here is, we did it together. We conquered whatever it is or was and we did it as a team. No one can take that from us - no matter how many laughs and scoffs were directed our way.

This is what Soldiers do. We do things together. We fight side by side. We win battles with our buddies next to us. We suffer separation from family and friends together. We eat, work, sweat and sometimes even cry together. Then why not grow a mustache together.

That said, here are my opinions on why each person joined in on the challenge.

SPC (P) Soles: He came into the unit later than most and he just wanted to have a good male bonding experience with all the other boys. It worked! It's as if he has always been with us and we couldn't be a whole unit without him.

SSG Burrell: This is easy. He has some fetish for the French lifestyle. This was his way of saying, "Hey! Pierre, I can look just like you, no? Oui, oui." Besides, the babes really dig a man with a "stache". (just more French wishful thinking)

1SG Martinez: Hey, I'm the 1SG, I'm supposed to lead from the front. I had no choice. Who wants to follow a 1SG into war who can't grow a mustache.

SFC Quebec: Probably the only one in the unit that can actually grow a full mustache without looking like a goofball. Deep down, he knows this and so I believe he grew it just to show us how it's done.

SSG Ford: It's all about style for SSG Ford. He's done this before. Quebec may be able to grow a mustache out, but SSG Ford knows how to make it look good - neat, trimmed and classic.

I only have a few photos here for illustrative purposes. If I get a few more I'll add them. But, you should know that the rest of our male soldiers participated as well; SPC Alperin, SFC Burke, SGT Fardette, SGT Risner and 1Lt Sarratt.

All of them had their reasons too.

SPC Alperin: It's all about having fun for SPC Alperin. It was a great way to mark the moment and have a laugh - ahh, the memories.

SFC Burke: "Aw heck, I can do that and still drink my coffee! Count me in."

SGT Fardette: Hey, he's from Hawaii. It's part of the Hawaiian spirit to join in with your bruddas and make it a family affair. Life is good, a mustache can only make it better.

SGT Risner: It took me a while to figure his out but, this is what I came up with. This man can play a mean guitar and he has the voice to go with it. He may just make it to the big time with his music. I think he was just testing his stage persona on the rest of us to see if it was marketable. Uhh, I'd say, try another gimmick.

1Lt Sarratt: He likes sweet treats, but has limited his sweet treat intake to once a week, on Saturdays. I think he did this so he could secretly hide a pecan pie in his stache for consumption later in the week, but I can't prove it.

So there you have it. A milestone in our deployment history; now, come and gone. Next up? I believe the she-Soldiers have already begun growing out their leg hair. I can't prove it, there's no way to tell for sure but, I think SGT Anderson's is starting to flow out the top of her boots. Just an observation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What You Hear In A War Zone

Many years ago, while living in Portsmouth, Ohio, I had an apartment located no more than 150 feet from a rail yard. My first few weeks living there were difficult. I had a hard time sleeping through the screeches, bangs, bumps and grumbles in the night as rail workers prepared trains for their departures across the country.

Over time, my mind and ears seemed to filter out the once annoying sounds and I was able to sleep peacefully. It seems that those sounds became so common place that I was able to tune them out. The situation had changed so drastically, that even if a mouse or mosquito moved or buzzed in the night I could hear it and respond accordingly, even over the industrial sounds emanating from the rail yard just outside my front door.

In some circles, this ability to filter out ambient noise is also called Mommy/Daddy deafness. A syndrome experienced by parents whose children are able to tune out the voices of parents and peacefully go on their merry way, as if their parents aren't actually talking - but I digress.

Today, I discovered that I am once again filtering out the noise of unwanted sounds to allow me a peaceful nights sleep, and further, to filter out the everyday sounds of a war zone.

At 0530 today our unit met at the base of signal hill for another installment of unit PT. (see SFC Burke's blog entry for greater detail on that). SSG Burrell put us in a PT formation, got us all stretched out, warmed up and ready for an unexpected 3-mile run around what we call Z lake here on Camp Liberty.

That's when it hit me. As I ran, I noticed a few things. I could hear the breeze rustling the reeds that line the lake shore, I heard a duck and a bird squawk on the shoreline. I could hear my feet strike the pavement (when there is pavement) and the crunch of gravel under foot as I ran. I could hear my breathing and the rhythmic jangling of my dog tags bouncing between my chest and shirt. I could hear the voices of my Soldiers yelling at me across a small span of lake saying, "you go first sergeant!" What I heard were the peaceful sounds of a morning run along a beautiful lake. It was invigorating.

Here is what I did not hear, though I can promise you these sounds fill the air around us 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The whopping rotor blades of helicopters over head. The constant drone of hundreds of diesel generators, from which there truly is no escape. The revving of engines from Humvee's, MRAP's, strykers, buses and cars. The thrust of jet engines from airplanes taking off from Baghdad International Airport, BIAP as we call it. Whining sirens from the lead vehicle in convoys headed outside the wire. Automatic weapons fire from ranges on the camp and distant combat engagements from off post. And a cornucopia of everyday sounds and noises that are the constant audible backdrop to our life here.

Somehow in the past few weeks my mind has made a change. Like the change that occurred years ago in Portsmouth, Ohio. All those noises that, when I arrived, were so obvious to me, that at times raised my adrenaline level, or might have made me duck and cover, have become almost silent to me.

And again, just like those days next to the rail yard when I could hear a mouse or mosquito, it's the noises that aren't normal that raise my attention now. I always wondered about that before coming here. How it was that our groundpounder's (infantrymen), MP's and EOD (ordnance) Soldiers could know when something bad was going to happen or how they knew when not to go around a corner, go into a building or avoid certain areas of the city or road. It's all about filtering; knowing the difference between normal and, - not normal.

It's a strange shift in reality. When the sounds of a war zone actually become peaceful. When what once brought fear brings comfort.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Bringing Things Into Focus

To date, the majority of my posts have been very upbeat, relatively fun and easy in nature. I'm pretty optimistic that way. I try to find the lighter side of our unit experience and, with a little literary embellishment, tell some of our 'war stories'.

Of course, it's not all fun and games. There are days when the stresses of being away from home, family, friends and our real lives takes it's toll. With that kind of stress, the ability to focus on our mission wanes a bit.

One of the hardest aspects of deployment is maintaining that focus. Day after day the mission continues. There is no break, there is no stopping. There's always another story to write, another mission outside the wire, another event, another deadline, another day away from all that we love, all that we know, all that brings us comfort. Sleep is restless, hours pass like minutes and seconds like hours.

In all of this, for any Soldier, journalist or infantryman, it's inevitable that sharp focus can give way to complacency, laziness, daydreaming, lack of interest, anger, resentment, feelings of fear, doubt and apathy. 

Understandably, some of these challenging side effects have found their way into the 211th. It has been a pretty tough three weeks here. And the reality of our environment has hit home.

My goal in writing this blog is to share with those who have never deployed or those not in the military to see what it is like to deploy. This is one of the aspects of deployment you may have wondered about and though it isn't easy to put out there, I felt like you should get a little flavor of this part of being away.

As a first sergeant, my main job is to look after the health, safety, training and morale of my soldiers. This includes everything from food and lodging to personal problems and job proficiency. It is a delicate balancing act between allowing soldiers to guide themselves or giving specific direction to accomplish the mission.

Today that balance shifted entirely onto my side of the scale. I took control and in many respects I took hold of our soldiers and pointed them in the right direction to get the mission complete. It might sound like a nice thing to do, but ask one of our soldiers if they feel that way and I'm sure you'll get a solid, 'no'.

In essence, I set some new ground rules for our daily work schedules. Changed the way we had been doing things to a more regimented process and took away some personal liberties. The forum for this change in course included a lot of yelling, push-ups, rolling in the dirt and general humiliation. What one might picture as a basic training scene. This of course did not go over well, and honestly, I didn't expect it to.

Don't get me wrong - I am truly proud of our Soldiers. They are honestly some of the smartest Soldiers I have ever had work for me. They are intelligent, witty, resourceful, talented and motivated to work. But, even the best Soldiers can be distracted by the challenges of being deployed. Back home there are relationships that need attention, there are family health issues, behavior problems with our children and a myriad of personal issues that we cannot address from across the miles that separate us.

Here in Iraq, there are personality conflicts, differences of professional opinion, feelings of inadequacy, fear of the war itself, disappointments and uncomfortable living conditions. All of which blurs our focus. 

Generally, moments like this pass, and I'm confident they'll pass with us too. But, sometimes a little nudge by someone in authority is needed to move the group in a forward direction. I've mentioned on several occasions how very much like a family, an army unit is. And like a family, there are times when some stern motivation can help get everyone back on track.

I've mentioned to some of my NCOs that it isn't my goal to be a great friend to each of my soldiers, though I think there are a few that would consider me friendly. My goal is to keep my soldiers focused in a positive direction, help them find success in their work here, accomplish the mission assigned to the unit and get them back home to their families with an experience they can be proud to claim.

That's a tough job when you consider all the factors that affect the life of a deployed Soldier. Too many aspects of a Soldier's life are out of their control, beyond their influence and tremendously frustrating. For now we'll focus on the things we can control. Getting rest when we need it, eating when we're hungry, getting to work on time, telling the story of the American Soldier and staying safe.

I'll grant you, that's not much of a life, but for now, these things may very well be the only things we can keep in focus.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Things You Might Not Think About

Today was a beautiful day in Iraq. It was one of those fleeting-moment days that occur in small quantity here - a high of 68 degrees, slightly overcast and little, if any, movement of the air. Simply beautiful.

Only the distant sound of small arms fire,  the rythymic whopping of helos overhead and the rumble of large diesel power armored trucks rolling down dust laden roads could remind you that you are in a war zone. That said, you get used to those sounds and sights, they become somewhat common place and routine, allowing you to appreciate even the simple pleasure of fair weather, brief as it is.

It was the kind of weather that makes it easier to get outside and conduct your daily constitution - a visit to the latrine. I don't know why, in the Army, we call it the latrine, but we do and for now we'll just leave it at that. At any rate, it was the perfect day for visiting the latrine. Under normal circumstances here in Iraq, this decision is not made lightly. With temperatures reaching scorching highs in the summer and rain and dust storms in the winter and spring, the decision to leave the comfort of your office or living quarters to walk anywhere, whether 100 feet or one hundred yards, to do your business is not an easy task.

And really, this is the subject of my blog - the Latrine. It's the luck of the draw here, you may be lucky enough to be a few steps away from a latrine or cursed enough to be a days walk from that little rest stop. In some cases, Soldiers totally luck out and they get a latrine right in the building they work in. That's like living in the lap of luxury.

There are other aspects of the latrine question that affect daily life here. That is, where is the latrine in comparison to where you live. Some, again, are lucky to be pretty close, others, like me and my Soldiers are a bit further. In my case, I live about a minutes walk from the nearest latrine. Once again, some are blessed from on high to actually have a latrine and shower co-located to their sleeping quarters. I personally, don't know any of these golden soldiers, but I hear that they exist, albeit in some other realm.

What I'm getting at, is that the situation is not convenient. In some cases, there are soldiers of the male persuasion who, when it is late at night and nature calls, opt to fill a predetermined container within their own living quarters, as opposed to getting up, getting dressed and walking in utter darkness over gravel, hardened mud and unbearable heat to relieve the urge.

This situation is only exacerbated by the fact that to keep your body well hydrated in this climate you drink an incredible amount of water and that, of course, causes a regular urge to use the latrine. So, where you are located in relation to a latrine is of grave importance here.

There are other inconveniences caused by the sparse location of latrines here that one may not consider. It is a matter of supply and demand. Often times, latrines (like ours, pictured above just outside our building) are not within hollering distance of friendly forces (ie. other unit members).

These mobile latrines are maintained by contract companies that clean, restock and empty them on some kind of semi-regular schedule. So, there is no guarantee that when nature calls, all the supplies you need to conduct your business will be available. At home, when supply of TP does not meet the current demand, you simply yell out, "hey can someone get me a roll of TP!"

Out here, that call may not be heard, by anyone, much less one of your "friendlies". So your visit to the latrine may last longer than you had anticipated - unless you are lucky enough to have an innocent passerby hear your call for help.

Such is the case with me when I was an innocent passerby. I headed to the latrine to do my business. I walked in, pulled the door shut and was about to latch it when I heard a calm, but desperate call for help. "Umm, do you have any toilet paper over there?" - I did not.

Recognizing the situation for what it was - grave - I sprung from my latrine, like Superman from a phone booth, "I'll find some for you," I said. I returned to my office and asked if anyone had any TP, and relayed that there was a Soldier in the latrine, literally caught with her pants down and in need of rescue. Without hesitation, the small group around me dispersed to find something that would get the job done. "I have wet wipes," said a one, "that'll do it," I replied and slick as snot on a cats fur, I was out the door and claiming victory at the latrine of the unknown Soldier.

Slowly, the door opened, only wide enough for a small paperback to fit though, and the handoff of wet wipes was made. "Thank you," she said quietly.

I had no intention of being a hero when I came to Iraq. I just wanted to do my job and get back to my family.  I don't need a ticker tape parade for my actions today, it was my duty. Anybody else in the same situation would have done the same thing because when duty calls, you do your best. It's how we Soldiers operate - we back each other up.

Somehow, in spite of all the inconveniences we deal with out here, opportunities arise that make it all worthwhile. Today, I helped a fellow Soldier - it wasn't life or death, but it made a world of difference to her and to me. It's an insignificant thing you might not otherwise think about.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Hand Off

They call it a RIP-TOA. That, of course, is just another army acronym for some army term that is just to long to say out loud, over and over. What is stands for is Relief In Place - Transfer of Authority.

In civilian terms it means replacing one army unit with another in order to seamlessly transfer authority for an ongoing mission without screwing it all up, dropping the ball or losing ground. That's what we are doing now, our RIP-TOA with a National Guard unit made up of Soldiers from Utah and Colorado. They've been handling the public affairs mission here for the last year and now it's time for them to head back to their families and let us take over.

They've done a great job at getting things ready for us and now we're up to bat. We'll sit side by side with them for the next several days, learning the ins and outs of all they have accomplished and set up during their tour, then they go home and we'll run with the ball until we do our RIP-TOA next year.

It's amazing to see the Army from this perspective. To think that we can have a complete changing of the guard during such a critical operation and that the important mission we are tasked with can move forward without a major hitch is pretty amazing.

Already, some of our broadcasters are hard at work making radio spots and putting together stories. Our print journalists are starting to find story leads, design the newspaper and provide valuable public affairs support to our division command, the 1st Cavalry Division. It's a great feeling to see it all come together and watch our train move out of the station, to use a metaphor.

All of it is simply amazing.

Out of all this however, there is a little bit of a cloud over the unit. We started out with 20 Soldiers, and unfortunately, along the way, we lost a few. Nothing too serious, no deaths, just casualties of the mobilization process.

Four of the greatest Soldiers the world will ever know are not here to jump into the mission with us: Sgt. Ebel, Sgt. Taylor, Sgt. Zoeller and Spc. Mitchell. It doesn't matter why they aren't with us, they just aren't and we miss them. They are with us, as they say, in spirit and we want them to know that we feel their thoughts and prayers in everything we do. See you when we get back guys and keep in touch.

Another person not with us, for now at least, is 2Lt. Douglas. She's here in country, but we sent her off to the IZ (international zone) for a position we have to post up there. We miss her too. She's fiesty, she's friendly, and as we learned today, she's a real sweetheart deep inside. She left all our female Soldiers a Valentine's Day card - the kind with hearts and cherubs and sparkly dust on the outside. She plays tough, but we know the truth, she really does like us all.

Come back soon, have fun in your personal palace up there and don't worry about us down here in the ghetto, where we have to walk a mile to get to our showers and latrine. We'll be okay, we can handle it. We know someone had to be sacrificed for the good of the unit and go to the plushest living quarters and dining facilities in the country. Thanks for stepping up into the volunteers' seat. Have fun. Just remember, you eventually have to come back and face the group so practice your poor me look - we're all gullible.

So, that's where we stand for now. We're living the dream as Spc. Alperin says, just living the dream.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Boots On The Ground

Boots On Ground is a term often used in the army vernacular. Essentially, it refers to a Soldier actually standing on the soil or location of a military operation. The 211th MPAD is now in a state of having Boots On Ground. We are here, in Iraq, a war zone.

For some of us the experience is not new, we've passed this way before, for others it is a first. Either way it's always a memorable experience, and until you have been through it, explaining the feeling is difficult.

To start, i've noticed over the years that, other than a few stress relieving humorous comments, Soldiers rarely talk on that last leg of the journey, that flight into a war zone. To begin, the noise level in the plane is too loud for a lot of conversation, but even if that weren't the case, I think the silence would be the same. It's almost like a state of meditation - a time to break with your normal life and accept your new reality. I can't speak for everyone, but for me I consider the situation, imagine all that could go wrong, review some of my training, do a gut check, prep and prepare your mind for the tasks ahead - come what may. Just before landing, I have found myself taking a deep breath and whispering to myself, "okay, here we go."

Then comes the moment you step off the ramp of a C-17 or C-130 aircraft and your boot hits the tarmac. At that moment, your eyes are wide open, soaking in the sights, sounds, and feel of your new home. For me the first thing I always notice is the smell of jet fuel, the feel of warm air coming off the aircraft engine and the wide expanse of the runway. There always seems to be a haze in the air here that casts a dreamlike feeling to the moment, and I inevitably notice it. 

In those first 30 seconds after I step onto terra firma, as we follow each other single file off the tarmac, our shoulders weighed down with gear, our minds weighed down with the moment, it never seems to fail that I offer a quick prayer in my head that the deployment will go well, no one will be hurt and that we'll have a great experience.

Fortunately, the moment doesn't last, if it did you would go crazy. Before you know it, deployed reality hits you in the face. Equipment has to be unloaded and moved, in-processing to the country begins and the mission gets rolling. There are usually a few quiet moments in those first few days, but for the most part, deployed life is in full swing.

For now we are getting information from our predecessors - back briefs, lessons learned about their experience over the last year, introductions to important contacts, unloading, setting up, finding showers, finding latrines, chow halls, sick call, phones, chapel services, sending messages back home, getting in the swing.

The bottom line is, we are here. The training is over, the mission is in full swing and now we get to the business of telling the story of America's Soldiers - Boots on Ground.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Pause Before The Jump

All the hurry up of our training over the past 4 has come to an end. We truly are in wait status here at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. We arrived here in the very early morning hours of the 5th, our intermediate stop before moving into Iraq, our final destination, in so many ways.

We sat through some last minute classes to orient us with the latest changes and situations in the theater. Then we had a check fire opportunity with our weapons. Essentially, a last time visit to the firing range to ensure our weapons are working. That was two days ago. Since then, we wait. Bags packed, minds packed, a pregnant pause in the process, waiting for the word - “get your bags, we’re moving out.

The amenities here are many, pizza, KFC, Taco Bell, 3 D-Facs, 3 PX’s, laundry, you name it, it’s here. The environment, however, nothing. We literally have been dropped into the Kuwaiti desert. The horizon stretches out beyond the sands of time, the sun a glowing orb at the edge of the world which cycles through a  spectrum of earthy colors from sunrise on the low eastern horizon till it sets in the dust filled air in the west.

It’s winter here and so the daytime temperatures range from the 40’s at night to the low 70s at night. Passing desert storms have visited us over the past few days, leaving a pockmarked pattern of tiny craters left from the falling rain drops. This kind of waiting encourages your mind to wander a bit. How is my family, my friends, my life back home. We are out of touch with it all. We have been able to make some phonecalls home, but the cost can be a little prohibitive for regular voice to voice contact. Email is the next best thing, but even there, the access is a bit limited and at times a bit sketchy.

Camp Buehring is a definite line in the sand between home and the year ahead of us. I look around our tent as we wait and see every soldier passing the time by getting some jet lag induced sleep on army green cots. I’ve done it too. There’s not much else to do. I can’t help but think of Rip VanWinkle. When we awake our world will be changed. Our daily pattern of life changed and, metaphorically speaking, our lives will be changed, by the experiences we’ll have over the next year. We’ll wake up in January 2010 and wonder where the time went.

Back home I am sure that the time for our families and friends is not so mundane. Life is filled with daily life. Keeping up with bills, raising kids, going to school, dealing with the economy, fixing the car, whatever it is - all the time wondering and waiting for some word from one of us here.

Well - here are a few words. We are doing fine, anxious to get the job done, and get back home. 

Monday, February 2, 2009

Good To The Last Drop

There are moments, sounds, smells, tastes and touches in a Soldiers life that linger. For example, ask any Soldier if they can imagine the smell of a green canvas tent or the smoke created by small arms fire; diesel generators or CLP oil while cleaning a weapon.

Ask them if they can remember the taste, feel and smell of riot gas from when they were in basic training. Ask them if they can feel the recoil of an M16 or the feeling of firepower behind a 50 cal. machine gun and the sound of the metal retaining clips falling all around you while you fire 550 rounds per minute nearly 1900 meters in front of you.

Ask them if they can tell you what Chili Mac is or SOS or grits or heater meals or what some call "the distinctive taste of Army coffee". Have them explain that first day in basic training or the meaning of the phrase "hurry up and wait", or what it means to stand at attention and hear the national anthem while the stars and stripes are ceremoniously hoisted up the flag staff.

These are some of the things that linger for a Soldier. 

There are other things that linger too. Things that have nothing in particular to do with military service, but of which most Soldiers are keenly aware.

Things like, the smell of a spouses perfume, when a letter comes in the mail; a young son or daughters arms wrapped tightly around your neck; I miss you, I love you; a good nights sleep in your own bed; the picture of a new baby; stale, hard cookies; Levi's and a tee-shirt; menial tasks that have no ramifications; clean sheets; solitude; a good book; escapism.

Most of the world can relate to these in different ways, but for a Soldier they are the things that mean the most to us when we are away from all we know and associate with - home.

For me there is one more thing that lingers. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say I am not the only one for whom this lingers - the last shower before deployment and the first shower after. There is something about that last and first shower that "marks the moment" for me. There is no mistaking when this moment occurs, and so you take note of it. The hot water flowing over your head, down your neck and across the shoulders and back; the clean smell of skin; steam billowing up from the tile and the sound of the splattering water on the shower floor - you feel every drop down to the very last drip from the shower head when finally the water starts to cool.

That's what it's like to be a Soldier, you notice things. You try to remember things. You try not to forget what real life is like - you try to make everything that is important to you last as long as it can - you make it linger.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Jet Is Set

It's finally here. A date has been set for our departure Down Range (Down Range is the term we use when a person or unit deploys to a theater of operations). It has been a long time in the making to get to this point. In all we will have spent nearly two months here at Ft. Dix and another couple of months in Bryan, Texas in a training mode.

Honestly, I think the Soldiers and command element of the unit are ready to get on with the real meat of the deployment and get to work. The training has been good, the opportunity to "gel" as a unit has been good, the memories have been many, the food has been mediocre, and the time is long past due to move on.

This phase of a deployment is truly the worst part to endure. Believe it or not, by the time you finish this phase, you are ready to leave what little comforts you have left on American soil and get into theater. You are ready to stop all the training and finally do the job you are trained and ready to do.

But, just for a moment, although we are ready to move ahead, I want to take a little look back. I mentioned early on in this blog that the unit would likely come together as a family unit and experience a great deal of the same feelings and experiences of a biological family, we have.

In the past months we've celebrated eight birthdays, we've lost three Soldiers from our original 20 and gained two, we've had some arguments, disappointments, frustrations, family health issues back home, cold weather (really cold weather), got new weapons (a first in my career and admittedly not really an occurrence in a biological family, usually), endured sheer boredom, shed a few tears, endured physical pain, felt helpless to our families back home inaugurated a new boss, nursed colds, drank a lot of coffee, peed in a cup (again, not really a family event), eaten more donuts than we will ever eat for the rest of our lives (thank you SFC
 Burke), and on occasion, second guessed our initial decision to join the Army.

Now, the real fun will finally begin!

In the next few days, we'll jump on a pretty big plane and move on to the next leg of our collective journey. We will take our memories of the past months with us and add new ones. There is one thing however that will not be packed up and shipped off to Iraq for the next year, it's that piece of our heart that stays with those we love and miss. As anxious as we are to get on with our mission, it truly is a means to an end. We look forward to coming home.

We have a long way to go before that day comes, but, and I feel sure that I am not the only one thinking this way, we look forward to being back in the USA (or France for SSG Burrell), with friends and family.

Most of us love what we do in the Army and we are grateful for an opportunity to be a part of history, to make a difference (in Iraq or to each other), to do our duty and then quickly get back home. We hope you'll stay tuned to the blog and see some of it with us. We encourage you to tell others to look in on us through the blog, make comments and keep in touch.

There will probably be a bit of a break in our blogs for the next couple weeks as we move from Dix to Iraq, but be patient we will update as we get a chance. Bon Voyage!

Faces Of The 211th:

SSG Burrell cuts his birthday cake. It's not a French pastrie, but he concedes it will do and moments later the tasty slices are gone.

SPC Logue, camouflage pillow in hand, waits to check in at Houston International Airport.

SSG Ford heads for the bus on mobilization day.

SGT Risner and SPC Alperin load up gear for the trip to Ft. Dix.

Our "C" bags. They are brand new, but will likely come back a bit worse for the wear. We each have an A, B, and C bag that contains the majority of all the gear we will need over the next year.

SPC Fardette carries his urine specimen bottle to the latrine. The bottle must remain in the sight of an observer from start to finish to remove any doubt of who the specimen belongs to and to ensure that there is no "urine cheating" - yep somewhere in the Army somebody has tried to use someone else's specimen. Go figure.

SGT Heise burns the midnight oil, the daytime oil, the oil in the first sergeants hair and any other light producing oil she can in order to meet story deadlines during our MRX (mission readiness exercise).

Monster, the staple drink used by our Soldiers to stay awake and edgy during our MRX. Addiction has set in with some of our Soldiers and now it is used to wake up, go to sleep, endure the cold, watch TV, have coherent conversations and whatever else is needed.

SSG Burrell and SPC Alperin discuss the finer points of story editing, how to say what you mean and how not to say what you don't mean.

1LT Sarratt on the hot seat for one of our press conferences - a job well done. Remember, it's all about the right words.

SGT Heise, the oil finally burned out and so did she. Great job!

Holy communion - a renewal of the Soldier's spirit.

Chaplain (Lt. Col) Hunter, prepares for the offering of Holy communion.

When boredom sets in, the boys will play! In keeping with the spirit of military strategy, the group gathers for a game of Risk.

2Lt. Douglas (right) and SGT Risner make adjustments to SGT Taylor's protective vest. The process truly does take several people to get it right.

SPC Logue is just too good for an Army bed. Have hammock, will deploy.

Recently promoted SPC Johnson, cleans her M4 rifle. Weapons cleaning sessions are a social activity in the Army. You'd be amazed at the conversations conducted, the food consumed and friends made during weapons cleaning - it's akin to a band of Gorillas gathering to pick each others fleas.

Cleaning an extractor pin from an M4 rifle.

2Lt. Douglas gets a noggin rub from MAJ Daneker. This is a new lieutenants responsibility in any unit - noggin rubs from the commander. It's a time honored tradition.