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.