Before now poetry has taken notice
Of wars, and what are wars but politics
Transformed from chronic to acute and bloody?
from "Build Soil"
Robert Frost

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tokens of Home

There's a small charm that hangs around my neck. Many soldiers carry some small token or good luck charm- Saint Christopher medallions, coins, crosses, sometimes even hand blown glass hearts. Mine is a stylized fishhook carved and polished out of bone. The Maori call it Hei-Matau; they believe it will bring strength, peace and good health. My sister bought mine for me while in New Zealand this winter, and I've worn it ever since. The Maori say that with time, part of the essence of the bone and of the wearer will swap places, and the necklace will become a small part of one's self. Mine has certainly changed in the six months I've worn it- one side has become even more highly polished from the constant rubbing of my cotton shirt, and the other shows dark streaks along the pores of the bone and hints of color from months of sweat and dust.

I've changed, too. One of my friends told me I wouldn't begin to realize how different I had become until I saw other soldiers going on leave who had spent their tours in Kuwait or other less violence-prone areas, and that I would not realize it fully until I got home.

A part of the difference is a profoundly deeper appreciation for peace. One of the first days I was home, I lay on a strip of grass while I waited outside the store my sister was shopping in. I breathed in the clean air and closed my eyes to better hear the wind whispering through the trees. I opened my eyes again and watched the people strolling by, caught up in their own concerns and ignoring the quiet beauty that surrounded them. I jerked upright when a garbage truck dropped a dumpster- the harsh thump of metal sounded enough like a VBIED to jerk me back to Iraq.

The polished sheen of my necklace is there- one friend told me that he'd never seen me act more confident. I felt it before he mentioned it- I own the ground I walk on, and you'll have to go through me if you want to take it. I've made it through nine months in what was once called the "triangle of death"; that area of Iraq that last year saw nearly thirty percent of those serving within it earn the Purple Heart. I've learned, as I think most combat soldiers do, to truly "not sweat the small stuff". If a situation doesn't threaten death or injury, I can't trouble myself to care too much about it. The only things that bother me are the moments in which my reflexes work faster than my brain, and for a moment I'm "back there". It didn't happen to me often over my two weeks at home, but when it did, it reminded me of what I think of as my "dirty side". I don't say dirty as in bad, but as in colored by Iraq.

By the time I left home again, I'd stopped jerking the wheel when I saw pieces of junk on or near the road, but I was still cautiously approaching manhole covers and overpasses. The dumpster falling bothered me. The car backfiring startled me for a moment. The neighborhood kid dropping a string of firecrackers out in the alley definitely startled me (Boy, am I glad I'm not home for the 4th of July!). All those incidents were quickly over, though.

The only one that truly bothered me was while I was on a trip up to Alaska. One of my roommates from college was getting married, and I happened to make it home over the wedding. The bachelor party was standard Alaska fare: shooting guns (Don't worry- the drinking waited until afterwards!). We took a long drive out around the coast from Anchorage. The improved road ended at a small dirt airstrip. My friend took his little Toyota Camry up to about 40mph and pulled the e-brake, spinning us in a complete circle. Things started going downhill from there. We drove along a rutted, potholed road through trees and undergrowth that looked like places I'd been along the river, and turned to cross a small culvert onto another road. Some enterprising Alaskan had blown up a car on the narrow crossing- the rusted hulk of it and another vehicle lay bullet-riddled on the other side of the blackened hole in the dirt. A little further on, the road disappeared into a giant hole. Another bullet-scarred car sat in the water-filled bottom. We backed up and took another side road and parked. I got out and smelled rotting meat- the smell of death. One of my friends gagged, and I remarked to him that all we needed was the smell of burning trash to re-create Iraq. That was the cue for someone nearby to start firing single high-caliber rounds. Of all the things on the trip so far, that was the one I was actually expecting- it startled me less than it did them. Another friend said he hoped we didn't get hit- I said not to worry, because the rounds weren't coming our way. He said that sounded like the voice of experience. I just nodded. It made me feel better to pick up a gun.

People will think I'm crazy for saying this, but I'm glad to be back in the desert. Things aren't quite black and white, but there are fewer shades of grey. The danger is real again, not imagined like some monster in the night or a djinn conjured out of the air.

Life is real.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Home Again

The first stop we made after leaving the middle east was Shannon, Ireland. We landed early in the morning- the sky was dimly lit with the coming dawn, but morning was still an hour or more off. Before we left the plane, the Lieutenant Colonel who commanded the flight back made sure we understood that we were all still on duty status and therefore were not to "buy, consume, procure, or obtain" any alcohol. Apparently, he's been in the Army long enough to know he needs to cover his bases thoroughly. Might I say, though, that to be in Ireland while unable to purchase any of Ireland's finest exports is a torture only the military would inflict? As I mentioned previously, the process of going on leave is nothing more than a series of indignations designed to help you appreciate getting home more.

Ireland has strict smoking laws, as well as stiff penalties for disobeying them. Smoking outside of the designated areas will earn you a 2000 euro (about $2800) fine. I assume that this is a recent law- the restrooms had ashtrays built into the stalls and the sink area. Now, you follow the signs down a long hallway leading away from the main terminal. You turn the corner and walk down a flight of stairs, followed by another short hallway and another flight of stairs. All the while, you pass signs on the wall warning not to light up until you reach the designated area somewhere deeper into the cave in front. At the end of yet another hallway, the doors open into what might be best described as a outdoor pen. The green fence surrounding the area is around twelve feet high, and the top slants in. The picnic table completely covered with empty beer bottles and glasses gives some hint as to a possible reason for the fence. As it turns out, this isolated zoo cage is the only place you can go to get outside while staying in the airport, so the patio fills with soldiers breathing the cold, misty air.

After another long stretch in the plane, we landed in Dallas. The people in Dallas are great- my first glimpse of America included a fire truck spraying an arc of water over the plane to welcome us home. Inside, the terminal was almost bare, but there was a still a small crowd that went to the airport at 6am to greet us. A quick run through immigrations and customs put us back in the world- a place where we are much less soldiers, and much more kids trying to make our cell phones work.

The rest of the trip home was uneventful. My group flew standby, trying to get home just a few hours quicker. Everywhere we went, we had a few people come up and thank us. In my experience, most of those that did had a relative or friend in the military. Most people payed no more attention to us than to anyone anyone else. No one was rude.

I'll talk soon about being home, about driving, about talking, and about feeling naked.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

I'm Leeeaving, On a C-17...

I'm in Kuwait now, headed home on leave. Travel is a complicated process in Iraq, marked at each stage by some complicated torture designed to remind soldiers that, while they may be going home, they still have no right to expect to be happy or revel in the appearance of comfort.

It starts with a helicopter flight. In order to board the helicopter, you must first endure as few as four hours and as much as two nights sitting on the flight line, breathing dirt and hoping the next flight will be yours. It isn't yours, of course, so you go on shaking the dirt from your hair and ears after each flight leaves, and trying to nap in the thirty minutes of calm before the next flight arrives. Thanks to one of the readers of this blog, I had a fine cigar while I waited- a CAO Maduro that, besides being an excellent cigar, allowed me to ignore one round of dirt showers. My group was lucky- we got out the first night, after only five hours of waiting.

The next stop on the trip home is one of the large logistical bases scattered around Iraq. After no less than a day, and hopefully no more than four, you fly south to Kuwait. In the meantime, you will deal with obscenely early briefings in which the military equivalent of a kindergarten teacher repeats simple instructions over and over until all the sleep-deprived knuckleheads in the group remember their last names and flight times. While waiting for the next briefing to start, you are free to wander the post. I chose to do so, forfeiting sleep in the process. I proceed to get lost and get on the wrong bus (a post with buses is new to me). It worked out in the end, though- the new bus route took me by the shore of one of the large lakes in central Iraq, as well as the stripped down and graffitied remnants of Saddam's air force. I got back to the transient tent at 1400- my next 'hit time" on the trip home was 0600 in the morning, and I intended to spend the interim sleeping. I laid down on my mattress, still in the plastic wrapper and devoid of any bedspread, just in time for the lights to flicker and die and the AC to whine to a stop. Great. With the power out and the heat climbing, I had little choice but to tack a few more hours onto my day. I'd been awake for almost thirty hours at that point- not the longest I've ever been awake in Iraq, but the first time I'd been awake that long by my own choice. I won't lie- it was kind of nice to abuse my body because I wanted to. Fatigue makes the world a little sharper somehow. Your reactions slow, but the sky seems more blue, and the sounds more clear. Unfortunately, the wind also feels hotter.

0600 meant more standing around, and more retarded people who, after years in the military filling out every form imaginable with their social security number, are still unable to remember the last four digits of the same. From 0700 to 1030, I nap, and finish off the first book I've read in weeks: Robert Heinlein's classic Stranger In A Strange Land. The title seems appropriate for my situation- first as an American in the Middle East, and now as a combat soldier trapped in a world of paperwork and briefings. At 1045, we got the first pleasant surprise of the trip. Our ride to Kuwait is an Air Force C-17- much larger and nicer than the noisy, cramped sweat box of a C-130 of the sort in which we entered Iraq.

So now I'm in Kuwait. I've survived three briefings so far, as well as a minor foul-up getting into a tent (apparently, the computer classified some of us as "other" under gender, and was thus unable to decide which tent we should go to. The billeting agent informs me first that no, I can't pick my gender now, and second, that question is hardly original and thus not funny). I think it's pretty funny that computers get gender-confused. I have another briefing, a customs search (not just for weapons/ammo/explosives- I hear they have a problem with people smuggling porn out of country. Remember those knuckle-dragging idiots I talked about?), and I should be headed out back to the states for a couple of weeks.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Back in [Blueish-Greenish-Grey]

Well, I'm back to Blogger (.com) once again. When I last wrote here, we were on the eve of a projected five-day mission. We began with a false start, spent the night at a small outpost on the west side of Falluja, and returned to base to try again the next night.

We ended up spending only three days out of Camp Falluja, and we managed to spend one night in the large logistical base at TQ (Camp Taqqaddum), which lies between Ramadi and Falluja on the shore of a large lake. All in all, the mission wasn't too bad. Even the Iraqi house we stayed in was better than last time. We did have to deal with two broken-down humvees in our Marine security element (part of the reason we went to TQ), and on the trip back into Camp Falluja we blew a tire on the BUFFALO. That day marked the second time we have had to recover the BUFFALO back to home- neither have been due to enemy fire. The last time we recovered the beast was just after we started working in Falluja- EOD had set up a controlled detonation of an IED, and assured the BUFFALO crew that they were far enough away to be clear of the blast. Long story short, they weren't, and we had to tow it back and replace three tires before heading back out to restart the mission. Ironically, the one time the BUFFALO was seriously damaged by an IED, we managed to clank all the way home before the shrapnel rattling in the cylinders destroyed the engine.

This time, though, it was just a blown seal on the tire (albeit in downtown Falluja). We hooked up and dragged her home, where we thoroughly cussed the BUFFALO crewmember who had directly preceded the event by noting that "everything seemed to be going too smoothly".
The week since we got back has been a whirlwind of missions, mission changes, and all the other wonderful things that go with being the "go-to" guys for anyone who wants to roll down a road in Iraq.