Archive | January 2006

Beautiful days

This is my "at least I'm not putting up with officers at the moment" face.

This is my “at least I’m not putting up with officers at the moment” face.

Our unit motto is “Just Get It Done.”

It’s the attitude that drives us. Because we get it done – or ‘r done. We get ‘r done.

Wednesday morning:

“PAO!” the S1 shouted.

“Yes, sir?” I replied. My section sergeant was at a briefing, so I was in charge.

“We’re having a demonstration of escalation-of-force tonight. The colonel wants video of it.”

“Sir, we have no video cameras.”

“So coordinate with another brigade.”

“For when, sir?”

“Tonight! We need an answer to the colonel of ‘yes’ in three hours.”

“I’ll ask sir, but I can’t guarantee—”

“Just get it done!”

Whoa, ok. The only brigade with video equipment was newly arrived on North Taji and didn’t have phones yet. So it was a good hike up to their offices.

Their video camera was already committed on another assignment, but they did have a photographer with a night-vision lens that could help us out. We booked the photog and proceeded back home.

“Still photos? No video? Hmmmph!” the major said.

“It’s all we could get on short notice, sir.”


Doh! We didn’t get ‘r done.*

*Editors note: That night, in the rain, the loaned photographer dutifully made the hike down to our complex and we headed out to the site, just to find out the whole exercise had been cancelled. So who got it done? I’m confused.

Wednesday afternoon:

“PAO!” the S1 shouted.

“The colonel wants a copy of a video he saw when he was down south. Get it to him ASAP!”


I told my boss once she got back, and she was able to call a few people to find out just what the heck he saw, or where he was for that matter.

Turned out it was a picture slideshow of some unit’s family members back home, made for “a soldier’s wife,” set to a song called “I’m a soldier’s wife.” Typical “you’re the strength of America” sort of sappy stuff.

By the next day, a CD copy was on his desk. Whew! Point for the good guys.

Thursday morning:

“PAO!” the S1 shouted.

“Yes, sir?” I replied. At another of our myriad briefings, she was out and I was again doing my journalist thing, transcribing notes.

“The colonel wants you to edit that video and make it from our unit.”

“Sir, we don’t have the software to—”

“Just get it done!”

“But sir, I don’t have any way of—”

“Just get it done!”

So, hrmmm…I guess I could buy some illegal pirated software with my own money and get ‘r done.

What will happen? Will I get ‘r done?!?!?!?!!?

Tune in next time for the amazing, life-changing conclusion!!!


And here’s your pie

The military truly teaches service.

Through every aspect, enlisted military life is a lesson in humility.

It’s a hard thing to get used to. I know it was tricky for me, that’s for sure. You really don’t know how wrapped up in yourself you are until you’re at the behest of others, day in, day out.

Whether it’s picking pubic hairs out of urinal cakes, cigarette butts by the thousands, mucous out of water fountains, scrubbing floors, making others’ coffee, cleaning others’ weapons, or any number of tasks – there’s a new standard in humility that can be reached through the uniform.

We enlisted call it having a serving of “humble pie.”

I was loading up the water cooler with boxes and boxes of water a few weeks ago when a young lieutenant came out and started helping me lug in the loads. “Need some help?” he asked.

“Sure, sir. Thanks  Just a few more should do it.” I said, and started talking with the guy.

A few minutes later a major came around. “Jeff, what the hell are you doing?”

“Sir, just helping with the water.”

Motioning him over, the major said, “Son, enlisted men are tools. Learn to use them.” And they went off to their meeting.

And there’s civilian humble pie too. God bless you guys, but a lot of you make a lot of money.

I was walking home from work, following three guys talking about their trip to Germany.

“John’s in love,” one said, cackling.

“What? Her? Please, it was just for the few days.”

“You flew her to Germany, John. That’s love.”

“The ticket was just $1,000. That’s like — what, three days work?”

Wow, and I thought getting $1,800 a month was decent.

Mmmmmm, pie.


Well, it’s sort of like that

Rain never drains off.

Rain never drains off.

Tonight after work I stepped from the lighted hallway down the step into the patch of gravel toward the gate. The light to dark jump made me lose sight of everything.

There was someone in the smoking area in the black fleece we’re allowed to wear in the winter time. I saw the cigarette ember flash and heard a chipper, “Howdy, the Salmons.”

It was a friend of mine from the S6 — one of the computer guys. Although we hung out a bit back in the states, our jobs here kept us occupied in different efforts.

“Hey, man, what’s shakin?” And so went the conversation for a minute or to. Work? Yeah. Sucks? Yeah. The normal drill.

Somehow we got on the topic of how the country was doing.

“You know, it seems like things have gotten a lot more quiet around here,” he said.

That was true, Taji was pretty chill as of late. Not too many booms going off around camp, and even my visits to Seitz, BIAP and some others had been pretty quiet.

“Yeah, seems like it. The camps have settled down a bit,” I answered.

“I think in 20 years or so this place will be a haven for everybody — a good place to visit.”

Uh, no.

“There’s been fighting here for thousands of years, I don’t think it’s going to let up,” I countered.

That, and the fact that Iraq’s idea of infrastructure involved getting a truck to dump the garbage or chemicals down the street out of sight. Things were pretty nasty in this place.

“Yeah, but we’re making a difference. I mean they’re leaving us alone. They don’t want to mess with us. I mean, places like Seitz used to be…whew, you know — bombed every hour. Now it’s like only every six hours.”

I had come to realize something about this friend of mine. He was a voracious liar. I guess he forgot I go down and live in those camps for days at a time, and that I attended briefings that listed where each and every hit in our area took place. Every hour, now every six? What?

“Yeah?” I said, now switching into ‘This guy just needs someone to listen to him’ mode.

“Yeah,” he continued. “And Anaconda, that place used to get his all the time. Now — nothing.”

As he went through his bit, I came to a realization. Was it what he said that mattered? Or that he believed it?

There were lots of guys like this here — constructing their own version of the war in their heads, oblivious to everything else.

They were the guys who asked for copies of my pictures and then told others they had taken them (no one reads our newsletter, so no one sees the credit).

But again, did it matter? Does it matter to “set the record straight”?

A friend of mine back in the states wrote me an encouraging email that said, “I just saw ‘Black Hawk Down’ and was thinking of all the stuff you’re going through. God bless you!!” Did he think I was living through that? Did he know what it was like here? Wasn’t it enough that he was praying for me? Was it right for me to let him think I was a “hero” like the exaggerated characters in the Hollywood film?

Did it matter?

People will construct their own version of things once we all get back. Stories will be told and told, embellished and changed. My pictures will become theirs and their lines will become mine, until it’s all whisked together into a hazy, somewhat true recollection of events that paints each of us in a slightly better light.

Were you in danger? Yeah, everyday. Were you scared? No, I had the blood of heroes in my veins. Was there blood? Acres of it, millions of enemy soldiers dead, and me and a knife. Heck, I shouldv’e gotten a medal!


3 and counting

There it is friends: three years in the ol’ service as of today.

Three years ago I was on a plane, traveling through several cities, on my way from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Fort Jackson, S.C.

I didn’t know what to expect. And I suppose I still don’t.

I definitely didn’t picture myself in Iraq in 2006, that’s for sure.

We’re nearing our four-month mark in theater — a milestone of sorts, 33 percent for those keeping score. I try not to, as the day counting starts to make me a little stir crazy.

I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately. I can’t explain it — well, I suppose it might have something to do with being away from home; but I think I’m coming out of it.

I love laying out the newsletter. I guess I like it for the same reasons I loved being a film editor — taking something raw and refining it into a piece of media is what I’m wired to do, I guess. Doing the story-writing thing is great and all, but give me InDesign and some iTunes and I’ll be happy.

There’s a heck of a dust storm ’round here. Since December was so dry (compared to the averages), the winds that picked up last night have stirred up the pot and left us with a biting cold, milky shroud of dust — just dry enough to catch in the back of the throat.

For as much as I’ve enjoyed not being waist-high in mud, I realize that the water shortfall will mean far worse dust storms. It might turn out that mud on the shoes would have been a better choice than dust in the throat.

Well, I’ve wandered around this post enough. I’m off to bed, friends. Tomorrow I start an Akido course, so I can return home and pick on people.


Ah, silence

Wow it feels good to be back in the room posting again.

For the last four weeks or so, the Internet has been a no show in the rooms. No biggie, we have access at work, and so I’ve tried to post there.

But having the trappings of all the normal office hoo-ha going on as I’m trying to sit and write didn’t work. The TV was blaring sports, phone calls chiming in, at least one or two people with nothing to do hanging around making conversation.

All of it swirling around, keeping me from writing. I’m one of those fickle writers that needs peace and quiet. Even the snoring of my roommate keeps me from laying the smack down on a post.

So, friends, I should be back in business. Talk to you tomorrow!


One of those guys

There’s a specialist, soon to be sergeant at the turn of the month, who is the colonel’s secretary.

He sits at the desk in front of the command’s area of the building for 12 hours a day – the normal stint for our corner of the war.

To his left is the stack of toilet paper he’s in charge of keeping stocked. To his right is a pile of college books he brings in.

When at his desk, he says little, and either is busy in a flurry of mouse clicking as he completes college classes, or sits with headphones donned, watching a movie.

He bores easily and makes rounds through the offices, sitting down and talking to whomever is around.

To this point, his plight would seem pitiable, carted off to war to make coffee and stack butt paper. But then he starts to talk.

Incessant, demeaning critiques on life, music, movies. He’ll tear in to the news, the selection of “goodies” on display in the various offices, how he is so unappreciated, on and on. Everyone’s eyes roll whenever they hear him coming.

“You know what makes me mad?” “You know what’s so stupid?” “Tell me if this isn’t dumb.” “You guys need more cookies.”

He’ll sit and talk, even when everyone continues to work.

“God I hate this place. I need to get out and shoot some people – kill some Iraqis. Yeah. Back when I was in Desert Storm –”

The kid had been an E6 in Desert Storm, got out and rejoined a couple of years ago as an E3.

“…Yeah, back in the Gulf I shot an APC and got a medal. I killed six of them. But here they won’t let me go outside the wire. I’m getting restless.”

Firstly, bullsh*t all around. Secondly, never trust a man who looks for war.


Trip back

Just a couple of shots from the chopper ride back to Taji.

Sunset in the chopper.

Sunset in the chopper.

Ah sunset in the city. Only one refuse fire burning in the distance, which cut down on the normally oppressive haze. It’s very rare to have more than a couple of miles of visibility because of all the blasted haze in the air.

Oh hey, friend!

Oh hey, friend!



Scenes from the city.

Landfill living.

Landfill living.

Mmmmm. The only thing better than living next to a landfill is living IN the landfill. Huts spring up even in the midst of the muck.


Clear as mud

Mud up to your knees.

Mud up to your knees.

In Baghdad, the mud was becoming a problem.

Dirt churned into thick, sucking slop, tearing boots from feet after just a few seconds grip.

I stood in a sea of raw earth, looking out to the vehicles on the opposite end of the yard. I was in a consolidated receiving and shipping point (CRSP) – a sort of one-stop shop for cargo coming and going.

Containers stood stacked in rows along the outside edge. Most of the goods had been moved to alternate sites once the rain had settled in, as the mud kept most vehicles in the yard once they entered.

Feeling like Peter, walking over terrain that felt more like water than ground, I wound my way through to the end of the yard.

Vehicle graveyard.

Vehicle graveyard.

Here was the final resting place for the vehicles blown to smithereens on the streets.

They drug them out here, away from prying eyes and the normal day’s goings on, to let the last bits of blood and lingering spirit drip from the charred, twisted chassis.

“There were KIA in all of these,” said the master sergeant I was tagging along with. It was his job to inspect the vehicles and collect the required paperwork before sending them south.

There, shops would tear off the salvageable pieces; put them on new vehicles and send them back into the fight. On and on.

“So many dead,” he went on, looking down the row. “It just makes you think, ‘For what?’ you know?”

I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there in the muck, eyeing the gaping holes in the supposed “up-armored” humvees and tanks, while the master sergeant checked off the items on his list.

Clouds of scavenger birds from the neighboring landfill filled the sky, perching here and there, eyeing the vehicles. Could they sense something about these remains?

“They’re going to build walls around this area eventually,” explained the 2nd Lt. in charge of the yard. “You don’t need soldiers looking at this stuff, it keeps the morale down.”

I can see why, it would take just one trip through the mess to feel the force of what we deal with here, and seeing them in the yard everyday must be like working next to a morgue.


Here comes

Good morning / day / evening.  I’ll be back with much goodness in a day or so.  Don’t go away!  I’ve been without computer access for a bit.  I’ll head back to good ol’ Taji tonight (or this morning for the states).  Hopefully I’ll get to show you a bit of what the rainy season in theater is like.


Still on my way to wait

“They’re not answering,” said the private on watch.

“What do you mean they’re not answering, try again soldier,” I said.

A moment.

“Sergeant, I’m sorry, but there’s no answer.”

“It’s okay. Don’t sweat it.”

The private was becoming frustrated.

I – well, “we” now that I had this soldier involved, were trying to fight against a very old and ancient system.

Historians and scholars would uncover only the rudimentary facts of the situation: that I was supposed to be in Baghdad by now, on my four-day assignment; my flight had been changed; and now, for the second straight night, the keepers of the helicopters were ignoring me.

Well, that last bit was too much. They would see only that there was no answer at the aviation brigade phones, but the deeper and desperate battle clashed under the surface – between the facts.

I, like this private, had worn the wrong ranks to this war.

No amount of complaining filed or otherwise, would help either of us in this struggle. Tonight, we would sit for hours, waiting for a scrap of info that would never come.

“I just can’t help you,” said another aviation unit we dialed up. “Who? Oh, sorry, no room,” chimed a third.

The private, poor schlep, sitting at a desk answering phones at 0300 with a sergeant standing over him, and me, there in the hopes of gaining permission to wait at another station two miles away, on a cold, wet tarmac, to fly south to wait somewhere again for someone to hopefully pick me up – we were both in perpetual suspense.

It was our lot to always wait — for instructions, changes to instructions, policies, changes to policies, formations, on and on.  The end of “time off” was never more than a superiour’s shout away.  And lack of sleep or food was hardly a concern for those involved.

But that’s cool, though, we were enlisted men. We knew the drill.

Bah, don’t mind me, I’ve just been up for awhile, and am a little tired.

It will blow my mind, though, truly will blow my mind, when I do re-enter the civilian world and am seen as a partner in some enterprise again, instead of this “tool to meet an end” paradigm.

It’ll be cool to seem like I matter again.


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