Friday, January 23, 2004

Baghdad Dying and Dire Need of Leave

Today is a cold, wet day, overcast and cloudy – almost exactly like Germany. It’s the rainy season now, and all is turning green, the palm tree trunks that were once scorched and dry are now black and moist because of the rains. Everything turns dark, the trunks of trees, the soil, the sky. It’s easy to understand why this area is so fertile after you see the rainy season. The ground springs to life from ground that was seemingly wasted by the heat and sun. It’s amazing anything can survive the Iraqi summer. It’s not an easy task to describe just how hot it is – or just how sweaty you get, or how much water you consume. Even after drinking over 7 liters of hot water (or more), you would hardly be able to urinate. Now it’s freezing cold out, everyone has gained a lot of weight since summer and we’re not drinking so much water.
Well, I’ve got to go to CPA for a big dinner for Sergeant Major Sanders’ command dinner. He’s replacing CSM Francis at Brigade. My boss, SGM Walker, is now the command sergeant major at battalion. So we’ve got to go to this dinner at the palace tonight. We’re taking the up-armored Hummer. I had a dream last night that we were walking along the road and I found a bag with an artillery shell in it covered in dirt. I wasn’t scared, just pissed about it. It’s insane how people are dying because of this stuff. I love you Nora, so dearly I pray for God to protect me and deliver me safe and sound to you. I’ve got a lot of writing to do now! But, I’ve got to go now to CPA. I love you!
2115 – Just returned from CPA. It’s raining heavily, so I had to drive carefully with the armored Hummer. When we were driving to the palace, an Iraqi pulled in front of me and wouldn’t get out of the way. I honked my horn and then he pulled all the way in front of me and pumped his brakes. We can’t drive on the sides of the road because of bombs. Then he pumped his brakes again, and the front end of my truck hit his tail end and I had to push his car out of the way. Sometimes these Iraqis really try to agitate you (like rock throwing or back stabbing) and they don’t respect you unless you set consequences. Of course, not all Iraqis are like this, most are OK. We went to CPA to the “Freedom Rest” hotel that used to be for Saddam’s special soldiers. They (Pappy and the other senior NCOs) had their dinner there and we waited outside with the jeeps in the rain. Some geek with a pistol stopped us drivers at the door and said we couldn’t stay. Some kind of “Freedom Rest.” What kind of name is that anyways? Rest from Iraqi freedom? Rest for freedom or from freedom? “Have you got a break yet?” a private asked SSG Monroe as we walked back to our trucks in the rain.
“No, I haven’t gotten shit, jack shit.”
“I know a guy who went to Qatar and got to go to Freedom Rest,” the private said sounding a bit confused.
“Yeah, the only people who get rest are people who screw up or don’t have anything to do,” another sergeant said. We all shook our heads in the dark, cold rain. Just this morning, LTC Jagger asked me, as he does every day, “Are you going to make some more dice?” He’s talking about a set of dice I made that make fun of ridiculous reports we get from regimental headquarters like, “we’ve got a white car in Baghdad with a bomb.” Really? Well let’s look for it right away! So, one dice says on it an object like “car” or “donkey cart” or “bearded anti-American man.” The second dice says what the danger is, like “IED” or “weapon of mass destruction” or “broken tail light.” Anyways, LTC Jagger asked, “When you going to make more dice?” I thought to myself about all I’ve been doing lately and responded,
‘Sir, I’ll make them as soon as I get a vacation.’ All the screw-ups get to go home because the real workers are too critical to let go. LTC Jagger said,
“Oh, oh. I thought you already went home.” I just wanted to walk away. I’m just ready to get this over with. I’m not going to make any dice.
“Fuck this, I quit!” Specialist Stuart said to me when I asked what was wrong with him. He was sitting at his reception desk at our office building looking pretty angry. Most of the time, he’s jolly and talkative – a good natured and intelligent black man in commo (communications) section.
‘What are you talking about?’ I asked a bit perplexed.
“Fuck the Army, fuck getting sergeant, I quit Thompson, I’m not doing anything anymore,” he said publicly and angrily. I saw he wasn’t joking. If Stuart was upset – then something must be wrong. “All these people are selfish, looking out for themselves. We don’t get a break!”
‘I’m not the only one ready to get out of here,’ I thought to myself. I didn’t want to encourage the anger though, no matter how much I could relate to it, I reminded him we’d be out of here soon – while trying to believe myself as I was saying it. I can’t wait to get out of here
Well, tonight as we left Saddam’s palace for our camp, we drove hunkered down in our armor and headed into the heart of Baghdad, canyons of grey buildings, grey at night, shadows of burnt buildings hid young men with head dresses covering their faces. The city takes you in and holds you in its jaws and razor sharp teeth. You just hope it doesn’t chew on you. I was trail vehicle in our two vehicle convoy. Is this city dying? We drove back safely to our camp, constantly scanning for IEDs. The sergeant in the lead, SSG Monroe from Apache blue platoon – a black, very professional sergeant, and I talk on headset radios just between each other. We made it safely back.
Two nights ago or so, A-14 tank
[1] (M1A1), the same one I was just writing about getting hit with an RPG, was struck with an anti-tank landmine on the highway at exactly the same spot where it was shot with an RPG. I just finished dinner with Hayder and Ali and Tariq when I saw some soldiers running around. I knew something was wrong, so I went to my office and radios were blaring. I heard someone say “skirts blown off” and “track split,” so I realized a tank was hit. Everyone on the tank survived. The next day, I went to see the tank and was surprised to see the extent of the damage. Some metal was torn, metal was bent in places I never thought could bend, and a set of wheels were blown off. A set of protective shields, called “skirts” were blown off. The biggest skirt is about 5 feet long and a ton or more. It was blown off and laying 25 meters away.
The tanks are out on the highways to make sure people don’t put bombs out on them. Lots of G.I.s were dying needlessly on our roads, so finally we did something about it. IED accidents have decreased, but obviously the terrorists are frustrated, because they are shooting at our tanks now. Everyone thinks that’s a good thing. That means they are desperate and the tanks are a barrier to placing bombs. Hopefully we’ll keep up the momentum and motivation to prevent bombings. It’s such a challenge to maintain momentum.
Well, finally, I need to go to sleep. The helicopters are out tonight even though it’s storming out. We are in the flight pattern for the helicopter troop here (probably why we haven’t been attacked at our side of the camp – even though anti-aircraft missiles were found alongside the riverbank behind us, probably pre-positioned for an attack by SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles). The drone of helicopter rotors close overhead is non-stop. I’ll never forget it. Even from our first day here, all you noticed were helicopter noises. At night you had to get used to it before we got windows. Now it’s commonplace, almost comforting to hear. Goodnight Nora, I love you so dearly and long to hear the beating of your heart again.

Rest and Relaxation leave was a topic that would get my blood boiling in Iraq. The program morphed into several different animals while I waited to go home for a brake. I was nearing complete mental collapse. At first, it was determined that all soldiers would be put on a random list. Then, Sanders decided that married soldiers would have priority over the single soldiers. Every few weeks, the list would change and reflect a different order. Then, leave became a coercion tool. Soldiers were told that if they reenlisted, they would be allowed to go home. I decided that week that I would never reenlist, no matter what.
Sweeny swore that he needed to complete his divorce from his estranged wife – a wife he used to feed MREs to in housing. Despite his disciplinary problems, he was allowed to go home on leave. Of course, being the compulsive liar he is, he didn’t go home. He went to Germany, picked up his girlfriend, and headed for the snowy slopes of the German Alps. It was there that he suffered a suspicious snowboarding accident that made it impossible for him to return. I thought it was too suspicious. Others would do anything to get on leave, make up stories, make up a crisis, or cry and plead, saying that their girlfriends would leave them forever if they didn’t get home. As usual, it was left to the professionals to hold the fort, while all the others went off to forget about Iraq. I’m convinced that is why the Army retention rates are low, and the quality of personnel is low as well. I was consoled by the fact that LTC Jagger and Major Stanton didn’t take leave, unlike many other leaders. As you can tell, the leave issue was a bitter one for me. It still is when I think of it.

[1] A-14 refers to a tank in the first platoon of Alpha company.

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