Other people say it better.
When you tell it, the little pauses, the time between words, create small gaps. There’s a flood of feelings and expectations, rushing in to fill the spaces. Until, in the end, there’s fullness to what would otherwise be a bare-boned shell.
War: just three letters. You can say other things, but they’re lost. The idea overpowers anything else.
I was a soldier. It’s something you hold on to, but it’s a story told for you, with other words – from movies, books and imaginations.
What’s there, the fullness of expectations or the shell? Is the brush changed by the paint?
When this is all done with and I’m home, I suppose I’ll take a look at things – try to get all the crap out of the bristles.
Otherwise I’ll be dry and cracked, bleeding old color.
P.S. Internet has been trashed by workers filling sandbags. Posts may be a little sparse for the next couple of days.
Today I was accosted by the retention NCO.
“Hey Salmons, when are you going to come see me?”
“About what?” I heard that statement about four times a day, with the response ‘To come take my picture’ being the favorite. I honestly didn’t know what needed, but as he began, my mind kicked up its turbo and began preparing its debate mode. He was about to mention retention.
“To come re-enlist.”
There are two groups of people in the Army – groups that echo back to the hallowed days of armed warfare: commissioned officers and enlisted personnel.
In the days of yesteryear officers came from rich or well-connected families and were commissioned by the government to fill a certain post or command. Now, candidates must have attended college, a sort of modern ‘rich enough?’ litmus test.
The term ‘enlisted’ used to be synonymous with ‘conscripted,’ meaning forced into service. Nowadays the Army procures its enlisted ranks through a volunteer process. Subject A goes in and wants to join. A contract is formed up, laying out a specific period of time the Army will expect Subject A to serve in uniform. With all parties satisfied, Subject A signs and things go on from there.
To ‘re-enlist’ means to negotiate another contract as you near the end of your present term of service. To keep people in the Army, certain senior enlisted personnel are picked here and there to serve as ‘retention NCOs’ or people in charge of keeping soldiers in the Army.
Armed with the power to hand out cash bonuses as allowed by the Army, it’s a retention NCO’s job to push and push until a soldier gives in, pledging another so many years fighting the fight.
“No thanks,” I said. This was not the first time I had talked to this guy.
“Oh come on,” he began his plea. “What the hell are you going to do on the outside? The Army is a wonderful place to…” and on went his pitch.
He had chosen the ‘you’re a loser and only the Army is gonna take you’ approach. Ouch, I thought I was more of the ‘the Army really needs guys like you’ sort of fella. Hrmmph.
“…and no other job lets you retire after just 20 years. Say, how long have you been in?”
There are two facets to judging whether or not to remain in the enlisted ranks: personal and professional. The same two facets apply to the credibility of the individual pitching the sale.
First, with him, professionally, this guy only has about six months left when we return to the states. His retirement paperwork has been filled out, his retirement home has been purchased. He has picked out the car he wants and the patio furniture…all that stuff. And he deserves it. After 20 years in the Army, he’s almost ready to cash in. Good for him.
Problem with me is – I’ve only been in for three years. That means 17 more go ‘rounds on the calendar. That’s a lot of time, and a lot of deployments. I can’t tell you how often the seniors in my office (I’m the youngest guy by 10 years) talk about how they couldn’t stay in with as much as soldiers are deploying now. They’re constantly talking about how they’re glad they’re almost done and how they can’t wait to get out so they can stop coming to Iraq.
Why then would I want to listen to this guy who’s almost done, and, professionally, who has only deployed once in those 20 years? Once!
Next comes him, personally. Typical used-car salesman type. A part from the fact that he is always dropping hints about how cute he thinks my boss is (sort of creepy) despite being married, which is a peeve of mine, he also is a bit of a sleaze.
A few weeks back…
“Hey Salmons, when you going to come see me?”
“Hooking up my Internet. I just got my laptop.”
“Did you pay the Hajji guys to hook you up?”
“Naw, I’m just going to break into the box and plug in.”
“No, that’s saving $50.”
Thanks dude, I was one of the first guys to pay to have them hook our living area up at all. And I was one of the guys who escorted them for a few days while they worked, back when it was hot. And I was one of the guys who actually already paid the $50.
I digress, where were we –
“How long have you been in?”
“Three years? Wow…”
That ‘wow’ meant there went his whole, ‘Well hell, if you’ve been in that long, you might as well keep going’ angle. The silence gap began to widen as we stood outside and looked toward the chow hall, trying to pick out anyone I knew.
“Have you thought about what you’ll do if you get out?”
Waiting for the normal ‘not really’ to continue his ‘You’re not ready for the outside’ spiel, I launched a flanking attack.
“Actually there is a company in Michigan that I’ve been involved with for some time. When I get out – if I get out [polite chuckle], I’ll head up there and join up with them.”
His turn, “What sort of business is it?” He was preparing for a ‘No better place to get experience than in the Army’ uppercut.
“It’s a film business.” Blocked. No ‘film makers’ in the Army. Left hook. Ooof.
“Heh, what sort of experience do you have for them to hire you with film?” he snidely asked, reeling. Don’t attack aspirations, friend. It’s petty.
“A bachelor’s degree and a few years of freelance.” Right hook and jab.
Thinking of staying in personally and professionally, I’m cold on both counts. Professionally, the aspects of my job that I enjoyed have been civilianized. Newspapers in the states are almost all contracted out or staffed by government service civilians.
No more working for newspapers, which sort of puts a damper on the whole ‘print journalist’ gig.
And then personally. I’m in a modular unit, the Army’s new brand of organization. I won’t go anywhere else or be assigned any place else for the foreseeable future. Fort Hood, the colonel, going to the field, and getting ready to deploy is all there is to look forward to. I’ve dealt with spammers more accommodating than this unit.
“You single?” Now with the ‘How will you provide for your family?’ gig. Sorry, bro, you don’t have me pegged at all.
“Oh.. Ha! Don’t worry, I’ll get you to sign up. You’ll see. Say hi to your boss for me,” he winked.
Christmas Eve in Iraq.
At the start of the evening, I figured I needed to write a post about Christmas overseas – more to the point, Christmas at war.
Through the last few hours at work, while walking home, and while fiddling with the site code I thought about it. What was it like? How could I explain it to everyone?
You know what? It’s just another day. The alarm clock will still buzz, the groans will still be muttered. Showers will still be cold. Boots will still be muddy.
There is a big hoo-hah planned at the chow hall for lunch, so that’s awesome. There will be all sorts of crap to feast on – including sparkling grape juice, a secret lust of mine. Mmmmmmmm, grapey goodness.
Other than that, I can’t give you much sweeping narration. Some of the troops have put up small Christmas trees, cards and the boxes of candy families send from the states. But it’ll be a pretty standard workday. No biggie.
They’re showing “White Christmas” on the Armed Forces Network. The TV spot shows that famous scene with Bing Crosby singing the title song.
I thought it was a strange choice to show a bunch of soldiers looking glum and sad while some sap sings about missing a holiday…
Then it sort of came to me. That’s why we don’t think about it all much. That’s what Christmas in Iraq is like.
It’s all about not stopping to remember. And if you do slow down for a second, you’ll have a seat, prop your face on a hand and look toward the ground, remembering the movie that reminds you about remembering.
The autumn’s recent fever had broken. What had been a lingering warming trend snapped with the spat of rain into the dark cold again. At least, dark is what I always equated the cooler air with, since I normally ended my day long after the sun, and the walk home nowadays gives a chill.
One way or another, through convoys or office work, I always missed the sunsets. Dusk had a calming way here, and held my favorite time of the day.
Through the sky’s purples and the rainy season’s scent of wet chalk, there rose the Muslim’s call to prayer from the nearby village, in shimmering vibrato and wails.
You would have to push by the nearby conversations from smokers and soldiers off to chow, but it would be there, on the breeze, in between the shifting branches of the trees. If I hadn’t heard it from outside the wire, I would have thought I was hearing things, but it was there, soft, carried farther in the night air, but barely.
On days where I didn’t miss it, I’d stand outside, looking toward the remaining light, trying to listen.
“What ‘cha doin?” I’d hear from someone. A verse lost.
“Just listening to the evening prayer,” I’d say. Damn, more notes missed.
Ah, there it was, in careful crescendo through the – “That’s stupid. Who wants to hear that crap?”
“I think it sound awesome.”
“Stupid Hajji,” and they’d walk off. Good, now back to the –
“What you lookin’ at?”
“I’m listening to the music.”
“Music? What music? I don’t hear no music…”
Never mind. I’d try tomorrow.
“This the place?” I asked, as we pulled into a huge gravel field, littered with rows of vehicles.
“Guess so,” our TC said. “Pull along them,” he said to our driver.
“Yeah, I’ve done this before,” he smarted back.
With all sorts of belches and piffs from ten air-brake systems, our convoy came to rest at Tillil Airfield. The personnel from the 377th Transportation Company began their work of unloading their cargo.
“I’ll tell Ops we’re here,” the TC said and began punching away at a large keyboard we used to communicate with base. Typically Army, the device could double as a desk, and served the same text-messaging function that modern devices small enough to fit in teenagers’ palms do in the outside world.
I donned my gear, grabbed my camera, and descended to the gravel below. If climbing into a helicopter with four layers of gear is tricky, then climbing over a driver’s seat and down a ladder with helmet, vest, camera and weapon is downright acrobatic.
It was time to get to work. I sat and listened to the guys as they joked and bickered. Ramps were lowered, chains loosed, Paladins started, and our cargo began rolling off the ramps.
Snapping pictures always gets a look or two from the guys. Usually soldiers smiled and asked where the pictures would go, always hoping for a spot on CNN or some TV station.
“Naw, I don’t know either,” I’d always have to say. And I didn’t. There was no Taji newspaper, and the units assigned to my brigade were scattered from all over the world. Any one or two spots used to hearing from us would have nothing to do with – say, the 377th. We’d just send stories along to wherever we could, and usually found out where they showed up by secondhand accounts of “I saw a photo you took while in Georgia” sometimes months later. Best case, I’d be able to send an email to their commander, letting them know where to find the printed story.
“Not the Army Times?” I’d also get, hopeful. “Nope, sorry friend, they take their own pictures,” I’d reply. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Some time later, after scanning through my collected images to make sure I had enough, I’d break out my Dictaphone and pick a few soldiers to interview.
That was where you got to know some people. Interviewing is both my least and most favorite part of the job.
On the one hand, you get to connect with people, learn where they’re from, what they like, what they do, how they do it. But then there’s always that angle you’re looking for. This story would be about how the 377th Trans had defended freedom, promoted justice, and brought peace throughout the region.
It was hard to get a 19-year-old teenager to give me that.
“Yeah, this place sucks, but I’m almost done, so woohoo!”
The soldier was excited about his mission, barely able to contain his enthusiasm for his part in the war.
“We go non-stop. They don’t give us a damn break.”
The 377th tirelessly endured long hours to see their objectives completed.
Whizz bang boom…Armyified.
Soon we had finished unloading the Paladins, and took on some old Army five-ton trucks. My TC, the convoy commander, had received new instructions from his type pad.
“We’ll head up and grab some chow, then assemble at 1300 to SP north,” he informed the gathered truckers after we had finished lashing down the new cargo. Two HETs would roll empty in case of a breakdown. On a long haul like this, it was normal to have some hiccups.
“These vehicles are old as sh*t. They break constantly,” my driver said. Lovely.
Packing ourselves back into the trucks, we all rolled out toward the nearest chow spot. If truck drivers knew anything, it was where every dining facility was in theater.
My truck had to go to another part of the base where our gun-truck escorts were resting so we could tell them about the SP time and that chow was nearby. After the quick detour, we headed back toward the promise of food.
I was in that weird numb state, having been awake for more than 24 hours, hyped up on caffeine. I was hungry, but on the verge of nausea from the candy and soda. I was tired, but awake from the need to be active during daylight. Still, a burger would be fine.
Choosing to drive our HET to the chow hall (and why not?), we passed several other 377th guys on the way.
“Hey!” they called out. “Yeah?” we asked, stopping.
“There’s a bomb scare at the chow hall. It’s closed.”
“Well, crap,” our driver said. “Oh well, off to the exchange.”
We meandered as well as a HET could meander over to the post exchange. Entering the gym-turned-store, my driver commented, “Welcome to the diet of the truck driver, all junk food.”
Thirty bucks later, our supply of drugs and sugar replenished, we set back out to our truck to enjoy a few minutes of candied lunch before the trip north.
These truckers were used to arriving at posts at all hours of the night, with only the 24-hour exchange to offer them any chance at food. I wasn’t. My stomach would have preferred the burger, but another bag of Skittles would have to do.
To be continued.
The elections are upon us. More on that later.
Everything’s shut down. The roads are black, meaning no missions. Air travel is minimal, the Iraqi borders are closed. We’ve shut up shop and are going to weather the storm.
I’ve been in Taji since Thanksgiving Day, the longest I’ve been in camp. And I’m drifting toward cabin fever. Now with the elections, I’m doomed to spend another week or so at the behest of the staffers and brass.
There’s been much to do in the office, namely getting caught up on Hometown News releases.
The Army has a great program where you are able to fill out a little form and turn it in to your local Public Affairs Office. We’ll take it, type it in, and release it to this organization that fires it out to local news papers and TV stations in that soldier’s hometown. Cool, right?
We had a quota of providing eight to 10 of these per battalion per month for our higher headquarters. That was just to ensure we didn’t blow it off, and gave soldiers a chance to be seen back home. Not a problem, it only came in to about 30-40-ish per month.
Where the “whoopsie” came in was when our colonel chose this as his flavor of the week sometime while I was gone and demanded 100% participation.
So, there sits on my desk around 600 forms so far. I’ve filed away close to 70, and expect a couple hundred more to arrive in the next day or so. Nearly all of them are just saying we’ve arrived in theater, with a couple “hey, I got promoted” ones for color.
It used to take me 10 minutes per to get these things into the Hometown News database. I’ve scrapped it down to five or six minutes.
That’s a lot of typing. I’m on day five and my mind is numb. Lord help the admin people who do this all the time.
I’ve caught up on all the office gossip and have snacked incessantly on the goodies people have brought in from family and friends.
Still, I’m looking forward to next week when I kick out again, this time to the north. Until then, I’m stuck in Fobbit land.
P.S. For those who don’t know:
Fobbit (n) – term of disdain for personnel deployed to a war zone who cower, hide and never leave a FOB (forward operating base). Replaces the vulgar term, REMF.
P.P.S. We’re hitting blackout comms a lot these days. I’ll try posting as much as I can. Peace.
P.P.P.S. Thanks to finch for my Christmas present! I put it on the Book list. Rock.
“Salmons!” the colonel barked.
“You remember those f*ckin’ posters we had back in the f*ckin’ rear?”
“I want those but with newer f*ckin’ pictures.”
And I was off, mission in hand. If memory serves…
Ah yes, those posters. Ugly, big prints of bad photos on posterboard. Print shops on Fort Hood could blow up anything to nearly any size – fuzzy and jpeg’d as all get out, but frikkin’ huge if that’s what you wanted. Twenty or so 3×5 foot boards hung in our halls back in the states.
I would do better.
I dove into the work. Photoshop, Illustrator, online maps, my mind kicked into gear, thoughts, ideas, concepts trickling and pouring in like rain through an Iraqi roof. Finally, here was something that required my kung-fu.
I took the boring unit emblem…
And shizzelized it with some sweet stripes. Shaded depth action, with uber dashes!
Each poster would have a map, showing where that particular poster was taken. But not just any map…
But some high-speed, GPS-tracking, target-acquired mappage. Booya. There we is!
After several hours of tweaking and fiddling, I had finally put together what I thought was a rockin’ looking poster. I built the templates in Photoshop so I could easily switch out the photos and information. Our poster factory was complete.
Behold the uber svelteness. So fresh and so clean, clean.
Just as I finished the prototype and readied it to show the commander…
“You got those pictures Salmons?” one of the crony assistant staff captains asked.
“Yes sir, just let me export the tiff so we can get the resolution to make it look good.”
“Oh…we are just going to print them out from PowerPoint on the laserjet. What’s ‘tiff’?”
*Sigh* So it’s back to the old ways. No frills, no flourishes, just 8×10 inch pieces of paper with bled ink and blurry registry.
And they wouldn’t even let me pick the pictures. They just wanted them all – the underexposed, duplicated, out of focus shots. Naturally they had no eye for what made a good picture.
Tonight was the final episode of the miniseries “Into the West”, helmed by executive producer Steven Spielberg, a six week television event, as touted by the commercials..
It was the story of several generations of two family groups, one white and one Lakota, during the 1800s. Naturally it was the story of the systematic annihilation of the Native Americans by the American government.
My roommate is Native American, which added to the awkwardness of watching a not-so-proud moment of history.
Learning about the history of “white people” is a little like waking up with amnesia…although I might be a decent guy now, apparently I was a bit of a bastard before.
What do you do with the guilt of the past? How do you keep it from spilling over into the present? How can I stop seeing myself like one of those soldiers in the TV show?
I mean you believed the posters and signed up, right? The girls thought it was cute, the older guys gave their nods, the higher-ups give their “attaboys.” But then you get here and it’s different.
You see how people live. You see what they have to deal with. You see them pushed and searched like criminals, guns leveled at their children and wives.
I keep thinking about that night where I almost shot that guy. I wonder what that young boy in the back seat was thinking, as his father, mother and sister sat with their heads down and hands up. Were they praying they wouldn’t be shot? Were they afraid? Was the young boy angry?
As we shouted and cocked our rifles and voices continued to rise, the armed man/uncle/friend fearfully shaking and pleading…how was I not like one of those soldiers on the 19th century plains, far from home, “containing a situation” with a bunch of “savages” (now called Hajji, the slur used against the Arabs)?
What will that young boy think? And if you’re saying it’s not important, I think it is. He’s the future for this people.
Will he think that such experiences were necessary to curtail the expansion of violent extremist aggression against the agents poised to unleash a healing wave of political reformation? Or will he remember the blinding spotlights, the guns, and the prayers?
When our lights faded and the car crept away, did the children cry? Did the father tell his son to “never forget” something? Who he was, where he came from? That, although the Americans were here now, soon, they wouldn’t have to be afraid? Was it just another night, like finding out the theater doesn’t sell Junior Mints — “Oh well”, and the movie starts?
I am a delicate and dumb soldier.
I require sensing sessions, to gauge my feelings about food and quarters.
I require classes every three months as to why I shouldn’t be a racist, to tell me rape is wrong, and that I shouldn’t torture detainees.
I have to sign letters that are passed around saying I will not have sex while deployed.
If I suffer hearing loss in a war-time environment, it is my fault since I wasn’t wearing my ear plugs.
I have to wear eye protection while I’m eating in certain dining facilities because years ago a mortar hit a few hundred yards from that chow hall.
I must carry around two cards in my wallet listing my general’s “combat priorities,” that say such things as “Command & Control” “Know PIR & FFIR” “100% Services” and “Conduct Aggressive Patrols”. Yet no one knows what any of that means.
I must have a “buddy” when I eat, walk or use the latrines.
I must carry a rape whistle in case I’m attacked.
I must sign a policy letter saying I will not use profanity because it is offensive.
When faced with a split-second combat situation, I must ask myself if I have escalated through the five S’s, thought through the four C’s, determined the proportional use of force, considered if deadly force is in fact authorized, switch to arming status amber, switch to arming stance red, flip off my safety and fire. Otherwise, I will go to jail.
I must show my ID card when entering any building, dining facility, gym, or MWR center to ensure that I’m not a uniformed, weapon-carrying, clean-cut, Caucasian, English-speaking, American-accented, Iraqi insurgent.
Over one million pounds of metal sat idling in the December morning, waiting on 480 collective wheels. The 90,000 pound trucks stood as shadowy mountains in the night.
Ten Heavy Equipment Transports were about to head out on their way to Tilill, Iraq, to deliver some unneeded equipment. The artillery pieces we had lashed to the trailers were to be shipped home.
For our five gun trucks, this was their first mission flying solo. There was some confusion as to the route we should take. The HET drivers normally ran through the least-dangerous roads through Baghdad and into southern Iraq, but our escorts were only familiar with a very dangerous stretch of road called Irish. There was concern the humvees wouldn’t know where to go, and they suggested we went their way.
“Hell no,” one of the louder HET drivers spat out. “You get lost, just put a HET in front. We ain’t going down Irish, that’s for damn sure.”
The huddle was still haggling over the specific order of turns and roads after I had made my way up to the cab. I saw the nervousness of the drivers at the mention of Irish. My driver, waking from his sleep, just shrugged.
“Oh well, wouldn’t be the first time,” he said, yawning. “Sure does seem stupid that they don’t just let us do our run.”
Reaching for a bottle, he poured out three pills. “Hydroxycut” was in bold letters on the side of the label.
“It tastes like sh*t, but it keeps me awake,” my driver said, as he broke open three capsules and poured the powder into his mouth. Grimacing, he reached for a can of Red Bull and downed the whole thing.
“Aren’t you not supposed to drink other forms of caffeine with this stuff?” I asked, reading the bottle.
“Meh,” he said flatly, and drank half of another Red Bull.
Our TC, the convoy commander, finally arrived from the forum outside.
“We’re going our way, f*ck Irish,” he said as he arranged his GPS monitors and radio headset.
Minutes later we were out the gates and into the war.
We barely made a dent in the eight hours before our TC started dozing, a usual no-no in convoys. Normally everyone is awake and alert, scanning for threats IEDs, but the truck drivers had a different protocol.
“One of us sleeps on the way down, that way we can switch out for the trip back,” my driver explained. “I don’t like it, but I sure can’t make it the whole time by myself.”
He prepared another triple shot of drugs to take the edge off his fatigue and I kept watch with him, reluctant to leave the speeding 100 tons of truck and cargo to the doped-up consciousness of a young specialist.
Swerves to avoid potholes or any number of rubble piles kept me up in sudden jolts. Quarter hour melted into quarter hour until I noticed the landscape changing from village to city to village to field to empty night. We had passed through the capital and were entering the southern portion of Iraq, rife with nothing.
After a refueling stop, the sun began its rouse. The sky rained down more and more light until I was able to see the bleakest expanse I had ever witnessed.
Surprisingly there were still people here. Single room houses appeared on hilltops every mile or so. With no plumbing, electricity, or water for miles, I could only wonder how families could live out here that produced the number of children that lined the street as we passed, begging for candy.
Unending folds of dirt, no developed land of any kind, and yet there were dozens of these kids, many without shoes, every few hundred feet. All out, hands touching their mouths in the sign for “food” as we rolled by.
“Makes you wonder where the hell they come from,” the driver said. “I mean, look at this place.”
Everyone hears the stories the cavalry and tank guys tell about chucking 9-volt batteries or rocks at the kids, using them as target practice; or just beaming the candy at them for spite. We didn’t have any of that, thankfully, just a box of Cheese-Its that found a smiling little girl, and an MRE or two.
The closer we got to Tillil, the more Beduins there were. Not just kids, but parents, bicycles, herds of sheep, camels, street vendors, all with little tents nearby – a clue as to how they lived in this blasted landscape.
“They’ll sell you hash if you want,” my driver said, smiling. Statements like that sometimes are true, but sometimes are just said to mess with the journalist.
Some of the merchants held knives or DVDs up as we passed, as if we’d be enticed to leap from our speeding vehicles to pay $30 for a looted bayonet.
Some kicked their feet out to show us the bottom of their feet – the Arabic version of the middle finger. Some actually flipped out their middle finger – the learned Arabic version of the middle finger. Every time I saw a kid giving me the bird, I just had to laugh.
As the sun burned the last reds and purples of early morning away and ushered in the yellows and browns of day, we arrived at Tillil – a base of Coalition forces, national flags peppering buildings and signs as we passed.
After making contact with some sergeant major, we headed toward the airfield to unload the vehicles. Our day had gone smoothly so far, thank God, but we still had the trip back, and my driver had depleted the bulk of his caffeine and soda supply.
To be continued…