This desert life
I’m finding that I’m having to use that word to describe most of life. How is it that so much of reality seems unrealistic?
I sit in a wood-paneled room. Desks and computers line the walls and the center isle. Huddled against the screens are dozens of soldiers, pecking away at their keyboards like some cyber sweatshop.
Although windowless, the frosted glass panel on the two doors cast enough daylight for the whole length of the room to read by.
Outside is a lunar landscape. Sand blasts the rag-tag metal trailers and dust tents. Worn, smooth rocks make the ground uneven, while dunes pile up to keep you from seeing too far into the wastes.
The cloudless sky takes up most of your field of view. The sand in the sky makes the sun seem like an enormous, hazy, fiery disc.
And the heat, whew. Stepping out into the day makes your body go into a miniature panic, like when you slip in to bath water that’s too warm. Your initial reaction is to get out, but you can’t escape it here. Finding some shade, you wait for your body to calm down and start to sweat.
The wind picks up and showers you with grit, wearing off skin and making you feel that sandy crunch in your mouth every time your teeth come together.
Your tinted goggles are marred by sweat-smeared grime. The sun’s heat is reflected by the ground, providing an even bake.
And in this setting, sit several shops among the military buildings and structures. There are Subways, Burger Kings, Baskin Robins, oriental food shops, jewelry stores, and even internet cafes for soldiers to spend some hard-earned war money on. In the central, outdoor seating areas, soldiers sit with their Pepsis, covering the tops to keep out the blowing sand.
They sit with their rifles slung, in body armor, sometimes wearing bandanas around their faces to keep out the grime. And they dine on Whoppers, cafe mochas, cookie-dough ice cream. They can buy DVDs, CDs, TVs, cologne, knives, T-shirts, hats, lighters, M&Ms.
I don’t know, but I just didn’t think war was like this. Strange. Sure there are mortar attacks, threats of bombs, RPG fire, rockets and all that business, but there’s also Caramel Mocha Cappachinos (can’t spell, my bad).
Oh yeah, I’m back! I’ll have more regular Internet access when we move up to Iraq. More later!
It’s loud. Blurs of action fill the television frames. Numbers flash on screen and cheers erupt.
Someone’s winning something. A girl grabs her man and kisses him. I’m lost in the din, sipping my vodka.
Monday night at the bars. It’s crowded. Football’s on. Jerseys and cell phones abound.
A lot of people wear price tags on their clothes these days. I guess it’s like leaving the car sticker on the window for a while. One jersey had a tag dangling from it that said $1,700. Wow.
My companion insists on going out. “It’s our last few nights, don’t you want to do something?”
Is that bad? Should I be scrambling for release? “I want to get some hoes,” this guy exclaims.
Yeah, that’ll be the ticket. That’ll give you what you’re looking for. He’s harmless, though. My quiet response and careful deflected stare deflated the notion of driving an hour south to Austin to pick up college co-eds.
Would it have been so bad to smell and see a woman one last time before sand and grit gets into everyday? I’ve seen the Iraq line work before. A few drinks in, you let loose with some soliloquy about beauty and last chances, happiness and passion. Women–God bless them, can get caught up in the romance, and forget that men are men.
But I guess that’s the ticket with any relationship: tricking the other half to seeing that we’re more like what they want rather than what we are.
Wait, that’s too much of a downer to end a post on. I’m listening to some introspective tunes, and it has a tendency to bring out the droning crone in me.
No guarantees on another post for a bit, kids. Godspeed.
…on the other hand
You will probably see two sides of me during my stint in the military.
One is this idealistic optimist, romanticizing the war and writing about how people grow and chafe amid stress and loneliness.
Then there’s the other me — the me that comes out when dealing with the bullshit of the military.
Side A is responsible for all of the long, thought-filled prose; while Side B spits out the raw, unpolished, venting posts.
I need to get a couple of faces to put with each, so you all will be able to see who’s doing the talking.
So, without delay, here are some words from Side B:
With less than a week left before we leave, time is at a premium. Most units, since there’s little left to do, will allow their soldiers to go home early though the day to their families and friends, to let them spend time in the arms of their loved ones.
Not so with our unit. Formations and multiple inspections and classes fill the daylight hours. One senior noncommissioned officer said, “Now is when we start to occupy your time. If we let you have free time, then you get in trouble. What we need to do is take all of the staff sergeants (E6) and below and put you in tents right here in the field, so we can keep tabs on you.” Wow, thanks.
There was a new packing list published today, changing the makeup of our bags. Luckily not much changed, as my other belongings have been packed and stored. There’s not much I swap out at this point.
Our bags won’t hold everything we’ve been told to bring. Now, instead of wearing our body armor, helmets, and gas masks, we’ve been told to also pack them into our already full bags.
“If things don’t fit, make them fit,” our first sergeant announced to the company. The unit is not making any provision for additional bags or later shipments of goods.
Now comes the task of figuring out what to leave behind. Will it be my winter clothes (the things that will keep me warm in the below-freezing night temperatures of the winter months)? How about my soap and razor? Leave behind my uniforms? How about my boots?
The top candidate for the left-behind list is my nuclear-biological-chemical equipment. It’s a set of very bulky gear that will protect us in the event of a chemical weapons attack. If it’s a choice between my body armor and my chemical suit, I’ll take my body armor, which I will use everyday.
So there it is
The powers that be have been kind enough to allow us to leave work early. I would imagine this will happen all week. There’s not much to do, and even our unit colors have been “cased” (yeah, the ceremony went off without a hitch, although there were plenty of the “Oh God oh God oh God oh God” moments where everything was on the brink of collapse).
The unit is a flurry of activity. Papers are being packed away. Laptops are being placed into containers. Last-ditch attempts at shirking out of deployment are popping up in the forms of out-of-the-blue injuries and medical conditions. Females are still trying to get pregnant to dodge the war bullet. And those of us resigned to our fate in the maws of the engine of strife and conflict are waiting out our time.
The whole spectacle is like sitting on Earth, waiting for some gigantic asteroid to smash the world to smithereens. There are those panicking, those trying to fulfill every last desire, and those just watching the flaming ball of death roaring closer.
There’s a serenity to embracing fate. And I suppose it’s the same feeling men have felt for generations when accepting their part in the larger ensemble. At the risk of melodrama (well, I guess we’re there already), it’s sort of cool accepting life’s cards.
Say what you want about the politics about the war, it does little for the men and women there, living out each day, carving out a life among the maleficence of the men trying to end our lives.
The churning machinery of conflict and war have forged the character and hearts of millions of men and women throughout time. Those entering the fire are consumed and left changed: either physically or spiritually dead, or more alive than formerly possible.
I’d like to think that I’d be one of those watching the asteroid as it streaked closer. I’d like to believe that my understanding of God and our paths within the great story of humanity would allow me the calm to see life for what it is, instead of just a series of ephemeral kicks. I’d like to think that in that last moment, I’d be able to see beauty.
Because life is beautiful. The breeze is beautiful. Women are beautiful. The way the sun breathes through the morning mist is beautiful. I guess it takes the violence of war to know life. Sort of like how a forest fire can clear the way for new trees. It takes loss to know gain–all that crap.
It’s all a cycle, like our Buddhist friends say–hell like Ecclesiastes talks about. Now it’s time to go.
That’s all I got.
Everything must go
The movers came Thursday and took away all my stuff.
Now it’s just me, an exercise mat I’m using to sleep on, my laptop, and my military duffel bags.
It’s terribly Japanese, and actually I like it, although my bum gets a little sore from the floor after a while. I’d get a few cushions if we weren’t leaving in a bit. I’m not big on the having-lots-of-stuff gig.
So we’re down to the final week. I’ll be posting a few more times before the send off, but I may be a while before I can reconnect. Please don’t leave me, I’ll be back. It’s just a matter of finding a connection to the cyberific world of the internet in the torrid wastes of the Iraqi desert.
I’m looking at options for starting a Podcast while I’m deployed. There are a couple of microphones you can buy for iPods, turning them into dictaphones with hours and hours of recording time. The idea is to have a sort of weekly reality-show sort of episode thing.
I’m not shooting to make it into anything epic, just to give people a chance at what soldiers talk about during those long hours of waiting on patrol. It’s not ALL women and sports, and we cover a lot of life issues under the backdrop of bombs and gunfire. There are incredible people in the military, personality-wise.
It’ll be a good chance for me to use the radio skills I picked up in college (broadcasting major, whodathought?). Ask BroGonzo, I have a terribly sexy radio voice 😉
It’s unequivocally a no-no by the Army types, but there’s good odds that (A) They have no idea what Podcasts are; and (B) They won’t be able to form a committee to discuss ways of drafting a memo to request a formal inquiry to decide if they should pass a regulation banning Podcasts…before I leave Iraq.
More later, friends. For now I’m going to numb my mind surfing around and packing a bit.
Case the Colors!
Here it is, just a few days before we leave.
There is still lots to do: The A and B bags must be stuffed full of military equipment; the car has to be junked (yes friends, my car died); the apartment must be evacuated; and the casing ceremony must take place.
Like many military ceremonies, the casing spectacle is stepped in tradition dating from way-back-when. Like every other ceremony in the Army, the casing hoo-ha involves a large formation of soldiers standing still, while the command group does several spin-arounds and walk-to-this-patch-of-grass in the front area of the parade field.
The ceremony itself demonstrates the act of packing up the unit flag as we leave for Iraq. Once we’re there, a reciprocal ceremony will take place, unpacking the flag to say “we’re here.” Speeches by importants will be at both, of course.
To the soldiers standing still for hours, ceremonies are to be endured. To the commander, they must be executed with strict precision, as any missed mark is a stain on him. To the media, being the first element of the 4th Infantry Division to deploy garners a modest news interest.
And we are the first out, so that’s sort of cool. It will take place on the division’s own parade field, so no more mud fields for us. We’ve moved on to grass!
Anyway, tomorrow begins the rehearsal process. Soldiers were told to bring in their uniforms for inspection, to ensure all the enlisted members don’t look too stupid in front of the cameras.
As the magical day approaches, everyone in charge starts to get irritated. Everything can’t happen fast enough; and everything seems to be going wrong. Those of us that see this as a ceremony instead of the Lord’s judgment just let things blow over.
With any luck, the importants won’t make this week any busier than it already is. There’s still much to do outside of this damned ceremony.
Between the packing, new equipment issue, forms, training, paperwork and ceremonies, I about go nuts. Christ, I wish I could just get on a plane and get there!
The Best of America
Last week, when Hurricane Katrina hit, I figured it would shake things up. For years, experts have cited the danger that New Orleans faces, being a city that exists underneath the water level of two huge bodies of water.
My father and I went through New Orleans a couple of years ago. We went on a road trip, stopping off at places along Florida and the Gulf Coast, visiting places he had lived when he was my age in the Navy, and staying a night at the Big Easy to take in the town.
The city itself isn’t terribly remarkable, just a typical block-by-block collection of buildings. The air was very heavy that day, thick with the immanent afternoon rains that help any southern coastal city stay humid.
We went on a river tour, to see life along the Mississippi River, and to relax a little bit from the car ride. As we trudged along the waterfront, you could barely see the tops of the windows on the upper stories of some buildings. It was surreal to see how the ground we had been walking on was actually a few dozen feet below the river.
The guide said that due to the urban sprawl, the city’s pumping system was always operating near capacity, just to keep the city dry during a regular day. He didn’t want to think what would happen if a storm hit.
And then one did. But it missed the city by a few hundred miles. Tuesday came and went, without any major water trouble. Then the levies broke Tuesday night, and Wednesday saw the realization of many people’s fears.
The city was ruined.
Normally, in dire situations, when faced with struggle and trials, humanity often weathers suffering by banding together to survive. In past hurricanes and natural disasters all over the world, the incidences of looting and profiteering are countered by an enormous outpouring of love and human compassion.
But not in America. A city goes two days (Wednesday & Thursday, after the flooding started) without a fresh supply of water, and it descends into anarchy. Yes, I wasn’t living in the stinky Superdrome. No, I don’t know what it’s like. But I’d like to think that, were I in that situation, I wouldn’t start to rape women and shoot at medics trying to help.
It’s a tremendous blow to me as an American to realize that I am about to embark on a year at war, to be shot at, possibly kidnapped or killed, and to know that were I back in the states, helping a group of people overcome a trying situation, my own people would do the same to me.
I guess I just had more faith in Americans. Whoops.