Thursday, February 26, 2004

Reflecting on Qatar, Ukrainian Piano Girl Stuns All, Special Forces Gets Hit in Fratracide Incident, NCO Party Gone Wrong

See never-before-seen video at or browse through Iraqi documents and items in the virtual TOC.

26 February, 2004 Observations from Doha, continued.

After dinner at the Doha Golf Club and a cool summer-like night on the club patio, Chris, Nixon and I got into the brand-new SUV Chris was issued by the Army and headed towards the city center. We didn’t head towards the city, we flew into the city recklessly. I was pretty nervous because of the way Chris was driving, but we made it safely to Doha Mall.
The Doha Mall is amazing, and it’s even more amazing such a place exists in the Middle East. I remember clearly seeing a pair of clear cut Arabs in their long, flawless white robes and red turbans, glide across a home electronics showroom. There was a wonderful contrast between old Arab dress and an ultra modern electronics showroom back-lit by neon blue lights and silver flooring.
I thought about the Arab world as a capitol of astronomy, mathematics, and trade. That was in the golden age of the Middle East. What happened? Why is the Middle East such a dump now?
At the mall, you realized one thing – almost everyone there is wealthy. They are wealthy from oil money. All they have to do with their money is buy luxury cars and luxury goods. I wonder why these rich nations like Qatar aren’t involved in reconstructing Iraq? They seem to be enjoying wealth and peace.
Chris, Nixon, and I walked around the grand mall. The architecture was amazing, the glass dome over the ice skating ring, the stair cases, the 4 floors of western stores. The young Arabs would walk past us and nod, or casually glance past us. Now, I was a minority in a foreign land. Of course, in Iraq I am a minority too, but a minority in power, so you don’t even feel like a minority. In Doha, I had no power, I was simply a white person from the west. I felt comfortable though, and safe. I noticed some African families walking around together, shopping, apparently affluent. The fathers were dressed in white gowns and a white head-wrap. These were a Middle Eastern people, an African people, and in some cases, an Asian people all living in a civilized manner, within an eastern, Islamic context. This was in stark contrast to the image of the Middle East we see on TV. It was encouraging to see.
At one point while walking around the mall, we came across a raggy-looking American, about 27 years old or so, who knew Chris. He had curly hair, a face a bit wretched – like a Canterbury Tales character, shorts (which we were told were not allowed off base), and flip-flops without socks (also forbidden, or so we were told). He was pushing a baby carriage along with his short, Asian wife. He seemed very docile, yet positive. It turned out he’s an American working in Doha as a civilian contractor. He and his family settled down in Doha, an unlikely place. Doha seemed tolerant though.
At one point, I had to go to the restroom, so I walked towards the restroom signs near a hallway. I made a left into a corridor and found two double doors – one female, and one male. Nearby, some Asian janitors started to chuckle a bit. I noticed this and looked at them for a moment. They smiled and pointed towards the opposite end of the hallway, from which I came. They nodded as if to say, “Go there, go there!” Slowly, I turned around and went to where I began. There, an old Arab man smiled and laughed in a good natured way. I looked up at the sign over my head. It depicted a crescent moon and an arrow pointing to the place from where I just came. It turned out, I was about to go into the prayer room instead of the bathroom! The old Arab man must have read my face as I realized this. I looked down and saw him chuckling. I smiled back, thinking the blooper funny myself. The man pointed to the restroom doors, and I proceeded into the men’s room. ‘Nice people,’ I thought.
After a while, Chris, Nixon, and I got into the SUV and rolled out of the mall parking deck. Within moments, we were driving calmly down the waterside main street. The night was lit by Christmas lights – like displays of shells and palm trees. The Persian Gulf reflected the lights of the high rises and Christmas light displays. Families walked along the sea, markets remained open at night, and cars went by revealing babies looking very peaceful and comfortable. Not dirty and shoeless like those in Iraq. I missed you so much, I wanted you to be there with me. I leaned my head against the passenger window and took in the view. ‘I can’t believe I am here.’ Evanescence’s “My Immortal” was playing on the radio at one point, and I missed you so dearly. I gazed unfixed out of my window, in a bit of melancholy. I love you.
We passed the emir’s palace and noticed it was small compared to Saddam’s palaces. What a peaceful place Qatar seemed to be though. “What do you guys want to do tonight?” Chris asked. “I can probably arrange some Russian girls for you.” Nixon perked up and looked interested in the proposal.
‘Nixon, do you really want to do that?’ I asked concerned. He looked at me like I was stupid for asking.
“Uh, YEAH,” he answered.
‘I don’t know, whatever,’ I said. I didn’t want to hang out with any Russians though. Nixon and I were tired, and I knew Chris must have recognized this as boredom. We weren’t bored though.
“Well, let’s go get something to drink,” Chris said. We went to a café, and I immediately noticed some British people there and later some French. We took a seat at a table next to a woman playing a piano. Chris explained that this café sometimes had belly dancing, but it didn’t seem to be scheduled for this night. I wasn’t disappointed. Chris then went on to explain, “The piano player is on my target list,” he said with a smile. “I keep coming in here to see her. If you don’t mind, I’m going to try to talk to her,” he said. Nixon and I just looked at each other and smiled. We just wanted to drink. It seemed like Chris was saying, “I can see you aren’t party animals, so I am going to try to meet this girl before we have to go.” The woman played the piano well, but it was Wild West style saloon music that I found gaudy. Mustafa, our waiter, came up and asked what we would like to drink. Nixon was sitting next to the box-end of the piano, and that explained why he yelled,
“I want a JACK AND COKE AND A CAPTAIN MORGAN!!!” I looked over at Nixon wide eyed as if to say ‘HUSH!’ He was already drunk.
“Don’t you think you should order one thing at a time?” Chris asked. Nixon just smiled wide and was loving the fact that he could even order a Jack and Coke and Captain Morgan’s at the same time.
‘I’ll take a Foster’s, please,’ I ordered.
Chris continued to talk to the piano girl. She turned out to be from Hungary, 27, and just completed music school, 8 years of it. Chris was trying to talk to her while she played. I was almost embarrassed for him. I felt so lucky to have you and not looking for love in smoky bars. I love you.
“Do you sing?” Chris asked her.
“I don’t understand,” the Hungarian replied shyly.
“Sing, with voice, words,” Chris clarified in a “I can’t believe I am doing this” attitude.
“No, I do not do this,” she said, with a thick accent typical of Hollywood Russian.
“I want to hear your voice,” Chris persisted. The Brits looked at our table curiously. I could imagine what they were thinking.
‘I’ll take another Fosters, please’ I ordered. I needed it to entertain me, since the love story unfolding before me was ultimately depressing. It was the same old “Yankee trying to get a piece of ass” routine. I sipped my Fosters, just happy that I could drink a Foster’s, and a bit proud that I wasn’t drunk yet – even after 3 beers. There ya go Dan, you’re a real man. I looked over at Nixon and he smiled like a baby – happy and drunk. I looked over at Chris, and he was staring dreamy-eyed at the piano player. I looked at the piano player and she smiled. I smiled politely in return, but more out of sympathy. To be eastern (former Soviet-bloc) and a woman damns you to an image of an object or worse.
“Do you play classical?” Chris asked.
“Mmm, yes, some,” she replied. She went on to play “Für Elise,” and it was flawless. How sad, I thought. You encounter that in life sometimes, the atmosphere seems so fake or superficial – and then something beautiful rises up, like a hand reaching up to life from under a stormy sea, or Christ’s last breath on the cross. I was stunned.
‘If I could make any wish for the whole world come true – I would wish for everyone to be happy. Not just happy, but at peace with one’s soul, and living the way they want to,’ I thought. I wished Nixon was at home, I wished Chris had a girlfriend, I wished the piano girl was not the piano girl in Doha, and I wished I was at home with you. ‘I’m so happy to have Nora, to have the home we have.’
The piano player continued to play and we all clapped at the end of each song. It was a polite gesture, and appreciated. I focused my attention to the surrounding bar. On the walls were black and white photos from the 1920s or so. The waiter wore a maroon bellhop-looking suit, Mustafa was his name. Mustache and all, all he was missing was a fez. Palms were inside the bar too. The atmosphere was something out of “Casablanca” or “Indiana Jones.” I sat back in my chair. ‘How did I end up here?’ I smiled and thought about you.
Chris didn’t succeed in winning the piano player’s heart, I didn’t succeed in getting drunk, and Nixon just didn’t care. All three of us walked out to the SUV outside of the café. We had to be back to the base before 2400 hrs. That was OK with me, I was tired, and I wanted to call you so badly.
We sped back to the military base at an alarming speed. I was almost about to ask Chris to slow down. We pulled into the high security entrance of the camp gate just as a sandstorm began to kick up. The security arrangements at the camp are pretty impressive.
Chris checked us back in to the sign-in building and Nixon and I thanked him for the good time and exchanged e-mail addresses. I know we must have been a boring bunch – but that was OK. I talked enough about you to impress upon Chris that I am faithfully engaged to you and not up to any nonsense. Nixon and I were tired, we’d been in Baghdad for months without a break. We said goodbye to Chris.
Nixon and I walked back to our large hangar-like complex which housed youth hostel-like rooms inside. On the way, we noticed a convoy of dark SUVs speed into the gated area we were in, the inner complex.

It was around this time that I had a dream that I was part of a State Department delegation to North Korea. We were there to negotiate a breakthrough deal of some kind. When I woke, I thought about the possibilities of working for the State Department, and if that was my true calling.
Life in the TOC was bordering on the insane sometimes. I walked into the office only to see some of the S-3 soldiers vacuuming chairs in our break room. You would think we were in the Pentagon or something. Barton would later confide that vacuuming chairs in a war zone was the last straw, and he would leave the Army as soon as legally possible. Foley then made my day by reminding me that I had outlasted all the NCOs in the operations section. He was right, I was the only one remaining from our original group. All the others had been sent away, transferred, or politely excused.
The economic situation in Iraq became clearer for me during this time as well. I was standing at the back gate talking to some children (these were the days before the frequent suicide attacks) when a man approached me. He spoke very good English and was dressed quite well. I greeted him customarily and he then went on to ask about working for the Iraqi police. He handed me a resume and copies of his university degree. He was an engineer. I was humbled and thankful at the same time. I was humbled that an engineer would be so respectful to me, a dirty soldier. I respected him. I was also thankful, because I remembered how lucky I was to be American, and to have God’s blessings.
Another event took place that never got much press, if any. Colonel Leroux was en route to another battalion dinner at our base when his vehicle narrowly escaped an IED attack. This time, the attackers tried to employ white phosphorus explosives. The standard procedure for responding to an IED is to exit the kill zone and secure the area. He didn’t have time for that, so his security team radioed in the incident and continued on to our base. See, had he been killed, he would have been killed while en route to some catered dinner party. That’s not what would be reported though. It would have been reported that the colonel was killed while conducting combat operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He wasn’t killed, but something else did happen.
A security team went out to secure the bombing site and search for other explosive devices. They set up the standard road blocks on the four lane freeway. Soldiers stood around and waited for EOD to arrive. No one would be allowed to pass. All of a sudden, a black Toyota truck appeared and sped towards the soldiers manning the roadblock. After yelling some warnings, the spooked soldiers fired several rounds into the truck – the appropriate response. I don’t know the exact details about what took place following the shooting, but what I do know is that the black truck was part of a U.S. Army special operations unit. The truck obviously needed to get past the roadblock, but the soldiers didn’t know the unmarked civilian truck was manned by two American soldiers. The driver was critically wounded, with a bullet stuck in his throat, and the passenger, a medic with no special forces training, was also badly wounded. The truck was brought to the base. I went to look at the truck, and found it smeared with blood, American blood. It appeared that the passenger returned fire at the soldiers on the checkpoint through the windshield with an MP5 submachine gun. While all of this went on, the colonel ate a catered meal with our battalion’s NCOs and officers. I don’t know what the SF guy was thinking when he tried to run that checkpoint.
Special Forces operated pretty well in our sectors. Much of the recon and intelligence they collected was accurate and reliable, as opposed to that gathered by our own guys. There was an incident in zone 23 where our SF guys were sitting in a car conducting recon. Within moments, the car was surrounded by local Iraqi men who forced SF guys out of the car and onto the street. With weapons pointed at the SF personnel, the men demanded that they surrender their weapons and leave the area for good. The local men were concerned that the SF would attract trouble to their neighborhood. Trouble that could turn their streets into shooting alleys between terrorists and soldiers.
The SF guys complied and surrendered their weapons. Shortly thereafter, a sheik came to our base to return the M-4 rifle, complete with optical laser sights. He was returning the U.S. property the Iraqi men had confiscated.
This is not to say that Iraqis were keeping armed groups out of their neighborhoods. There were several instances where Iraqi farmers accepted money in exchange for bombers being able to place bombs along Canal Road on their plots. Sometimes leaflets and flyers were distributed to warn locals about an imminent attack, specifying a time range and general location. One of the most frustrating things for me to read, was a report that several Iraqi homes along a stretch of Canal Road had taped up their windows to prevent glass from shattering. A soldier noticed this after an IED had exploded in the area. The Iraqis living in the homes had obviously been warned about the bomb.

See never-before-seen video at or browse through Iraqi documents and items in the virtual TOC.


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