Thursday, April 22, 2004

Dirty Desert Conversations, Dry Eyes at Yet Another Memorial Service, General Sancheeze Gets It Wrong (An Insider's Perspective)

Learn more on the official American, Interrupted website.

22 April, 2004 An-Najaf Desert 1600

All is quiet here in the desert. Soldiers are laying around in the heat and doing very little, as there is little to do and the guys need the rest. It’s hot, and it’s getting hotter. Things start cooling off in the evening as breezes begin to roll across the sands. Over the past few nights, LT Orr, Foley, and I have been building a small fire to cook tea on. I bought an Iraqi teapot that has been working pretty well. I took a coffee can and made a cooking pot as well. Last night, I made some turkey Spam and pineapple and spiced apple cider mix and cooked it all together. It was pretty tasty, and Foley and LT Orr enjoyed it too. Sitting around the fire has been a meditation of sorts since we got here. The other drivers hooked up a TV and DVD player, but it’s a pretty unsatisfying form of entertainment when all they watch are movies for teenagers full of tits and ass. I can’t enjoy something so mindless. The conversation here is pretty mindless too. I feel sorry for people sometimes. Major Ramirez and the others were talking about infidelity in the Army and about sexuality in the crudest ways. “Villarreal,” Major Ramirez said to Villarreal, “no matter what you may think, your mom has sucked a dick.”
“NO SIR,” Villarreal said in shock, “I can’t imagine that!”
“So has your grandmother!” Ramirez went further.
“Not my grandmother!” Barton said. “My grandmother is Sicilian and Catholic, all she does is cook!” he exclaimed. These conversations are always depressing for me, as you see people resigned, or rather embracing, animal-like lifestyles and not finding any deeper meaning in life other than meaningless sex.
Ween told of losing his virginity at age 11, of his best friend cheating and sleeping with Ween’s wife, and of his marital strife and tales of infidelity. “Age 11? Shit, as soon as my daughter turns 14, she’s going on the pill,” one of the guys said. “She can suck dick as much as she wants, but that doesn’t show like pregnancy does.”
“Hell,” Major Ramirez said, “I would be proud to know my daughter is a good lay. You see some little boy hanging around the house waiting for her. As long as she didn’t get pregnant, I wouldn’t care. But after age 14, it would only be hugs with her and me, because you don’t know where that mouth has been!” Everyone laughed and agreed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
‘What is wrong with these people?!!’ I said to myself. I really couldn’t believe it. It’s sick, and these people are sick, it’s evil. The whole organization is corrupt, unprofessional, immoral, and base. Not everyone, but almost everyone. I don’t get too upset about it, because it makes me more thankful for the life you and I have together, and it makes me want to accomplish more and work as a professional with thoughtful people. I know that may be idealistic, but something better than the Army would be wonderful. Give to the dogs what belongs to dogs, and I do not want to give the Army any more of my time or yours.
2000 – I just returned from the memorial service for SGT Patrick, SGT Glenn, and a soldier from Apache Troop. It was a sad experience, but this time I did not cry. My eyes stayed dry and sandy. Many couldn’t hold back, and I understand that.
CPT Berlin gave a memorial speech for Patrick highlighting Patrick’s courage, in that he volunteered to go into Sadr City as a tank loader when his duty was as a mechanic. He quoted a Roman proverb saying something to the effect that it is just and good and proper to die for one’s country. I remember Patrick as the guy I competed with for the best grade in American government class. Today when I saluted his remains (along the two others’), I touched his dog tags and said, ‘You were the best.’ I said this because in the past I was jealous he beat my grade. That seems stupid now.
Alpha Company took SGT Glenn’s death extremely hard. If the purpose of a memorial service is to help heal wounds, this wound is too large to heal anytime soon. CPT Powers lost his gunner and failed to hide emotion as he spoke of Glenn. Through the simple speech, its simplicity owing to disbelief still lingering and understandable difficulty finding words for such an unexpected death, CPT P made it clear Glenn was of strong character, gifted, and caring. In other words, a soldier of rare quality that should not have died. It was just a loss for everyone, not just A company, but for the future. A soldier speaking about SGT Glenn totally broke down at the podium, and it was painful to see him struggle to speak about his lost comrade. He didn’t speak about the war on terrorism, about our mission, or about patriotism. He spoke only of a senseless death of a good person. At one point in his speech, I worried his words would dwell on the “why” and become too politically incorrect for the distinguished guests, like COL Leroux. COL Leroux grimaced slightly as the soldier spoke. After some minutes, the soldier walked away from the podium and took a seat, then immediately sunk his face into his trembling hands.
The final soldier to be spoken of was PFC Chip Ferguson, of Apache Troop. He was killed in action alongside Glenn and a transportation lieutenant. The Apache commander said some words about Ferguson, and then a soldier went on to speak about him. His words were frank, simple, but healing – at one point saying a somber “Hooah,” to which the guys standing in the crowd from Apache responded “HOOAH.” That really showed the spirit of Apache – they lost a brother, but they weren’t going to let that get to them. They would honor him. The soldier speaking about Ferguson told the following story:
“Once we were on a tough road march, and after we finished, Ferguson came up. ‘Sarge, it took all I had to keep up with you,’ said Ferguson. What I didn’t tell him was that it took all I had to keep him behind me,” the soldier said. That was the best thing I’ve ever heard said at a memorial.
LTC Jagger, our commander, read an e-mail sent to him by the transportation commander involved in the ambush at Diwaniyah. “If it weren’t for the bravery of 3-32 AR, I am certain we would have died. I little doubt at least half of Diwaniyah was shooting at us,” LTC Jagger read, and continued talking about what happened, including how the tanks reacted by breaking tie-down chains and driving right off trailers to attack the town.
In other news, I was fortunate enough to stand only feet away from General “Poncheeze” during a brief given by BG Bishop of 1st Infantry Division, COL Leroux, and a 1ID brigade commander. I stood facing CJTF-7 Poncho, but covered my rank purposely to avoid being asked to leave. He glanced over at me a few times, but didn’t seem bothered that I was there.
All around, intense-looking officers stood around using their best posture. BG Bishop said little during the brief, but the Hispanic colonel spoke volumes. Poncheeze would lean back in his metal folding chair with the front legs off the ground and his hands casually hanging by his sides, occasionally coming up to stroke his chin in deep thought, or before delivering his wisdom to an eager group of idealistic and naïve young officers. Many of his sentences began with, “Now I may be wrong here,” and other inspiring intros like, “I really don’t know, but,” and similar phrases. He stroked his chin and leaned back while the black colonel spoke to him with exaggerated enthusiasm and facial expressions, carefully adjusting the pitch of his voice. It reminded me of a clown talking to a child. BG Bishop stared ahead and looked agitated with the colonel’s manner. Colonel Leroux looked ahead looking absorbed in his thoughts. Poncho listened seeming to have little interest in the colonel’s rambling. All the young officers looked as if they were pondering everything spoken, even though nothing new or remotely intelligent had been said.
The general looked up at the plasma screen TV on the wall that displayed a slideshow that some orderly undoubtedly spent hours working on with extra flashy stars and arrows. “Next! Next! Next! What kind of intel do we have on Sadr?” Poncho asked. A captain stepped forward.
“Sir, we’ve identified most buildings associated with Sadr,” he said before the general interrupted.
“What about TV and radio?” asked Poncho.
“They control a radio station and TV station,” replied the captain.
“Can you jam the signal?” asked Poncho.
“Yes,” the captain said before going into technical details about what system would be needed to do so, which wasn’t in the area.
“What about phone conversations?”
“Sir, most of it has been positive. A lot of it is about the move out of Baghdad, the extension, but overall, the soldiers are being positive,” the captain said confidently. I knotted my eyebrows in confusion.
‘What the hell is he talking about?’ I thought.
“No,” the general said shutting his eyes, “not our soldiers. Sadr. What is Sadr saying? Have you been able to monitor phone traffic?”
“No, Sir,” the captain responded. I couldn’t believe these people are in control of Iraq. The only extraordinary thing about them is the amount of power they wield, and nothing more.
“Now, I may be wrong here,” Poncho said with his hand on his chin, “but I don’t think this is an open rebellion. I don’t think we are having trouble with the Shia. We need to get out and identify and speak to leaders in Najaf. We’ve got to make them realize this is their problem and their future. Sadr is an enemy of the Iraqi people,” he said to everyone. “We’ve got to stay in contact with hostile forces and defeat them, but not become decisively engaged. We must be brutal. If they shoot from a mosque, then it becomes a military target…JDAM
[1] it, I don’t care.” Everyone nodded. There was some civilian woman in a long dress with frizzy hair sitting behind Poncho taking notes and nodding in agreement with everything he said.
“I’m not sure, but Najaf is the holiest city to the Shia. What we don’t want here is to open up a two front war. Our main effort is Fallujah,” Poncho explained.
Najaf is in fact the most important site in Iraq for Shia. Only Mecca and Medina are more important. You wonder if the military cares about that or not. When they talk about Najaf, it’s only as a military objective. The reality is that it’s a holy place, and could create problems for us over time. All this over one guy and a group of his thugs. We’ve got to develop a different way to handle individual rouges. Full scale military operations get civilians killed and Arab media uses that against the U.S. You don’t send soldiers to win hearts and minds – that’s not their purpose. I love you Nora. I’m dreaming of you!

“We’re supposed to be going home, not dying,” a soldier told me as we talked about the ambush in Diwaniya. When I was listening to the stories about the ambush, I felt lucky that I was in the first convoy through the town. They must not have been expecting us. By the time the other convoys moved through, they had set up their ambush positions and roadblocks. Driving around the sandy parking lot we called FOB Duke, I noticed a HETT with the words, “HETTS DON’T DIE, THEY MULTIPLY!” written on its nose with chalk.

[1] Joint Defense Attack Weapon, modified iron bomb with smart guidance system.

Learn more on the official American, Interrupted website.


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