Archive | April 2006

At long last

Yes, friends, I’ve forgotten about blogging, I’m sorry.

I went to a bookstore! A bookstore! Amazing places. A couple of quick points:

1) Sale tables should always be visited… I found three Hunter S Thompson titles on a “buy two get one free” deal. Score.

2) America is everywhere… In Iraq we have, among many things, a coffee shop in our little food court area (another post about our accessibility to Pizza Hut and Subway while at war is probably warranted). This coffee shop, Seattle’s Best (another post about whether or not it is in fact Seattle’s Best is probably warranted), spits out passable brew despite the circumstances. Now, not being an avid coffee consumer, scoring a genuine American overpriced cup of Joe hadn’t been on the priority list, but, while in a bookstore, I figured I’d mosey on over and slap $8 for a cup.

Lo’ and behold, what is their coffee brand of choice? Seattle’s Best. Nice. I travel halfway around the world to buy the same cup of coffee. Geez.

That’s it. Sorry for the brevity this time folks, but I is on the vacation, so har!

By the way, I love you all!

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A world away

The Oregon Coast!

The Oregon Coast!

One of the thing I wanted to do while here in Oregon was to visit the coast.

Heck there is an entire magazine dedicated to the scenery of this state’s coastline — “Oregon Coast” no less as its name. Nice, eh?

Lebanon, my folks’ city of choice for the moment (remember we’re a Navy family, retired as it were, but still prone to moving) is nestled in a valley between the Cascades and Rocky Mountains. It’s a neat venue, seeing the peaks and ridge lines in the distances all around and still having relative flatness in the immediate foreground.

One of the things that a soldier home from war will notice is that life continues apart from war. While in Iraq, everything is embroiled in conflict — burned out cars, trash, smoke, glares from our hosts. After a while, you don’t think about anything other than “the war.”

But life goes on back here. Duh, some might say, but we’re soldiers which means were a little slow.

Passing through some towns on the way to the coast, I noticed a normal Saturday. There were families walking down the sidewalks. On a field there was a soccer game going on, cars parked along the grass, parents pulling out coolers with chairs, smiles all around. Some kids waited at the traffic light to cross the street.

Going farther, we started to climb the small slice of mountains that stood between us and the Pacific. Weaving through the forested, winding country roads, we darted in and out of the sunlight, passing cliff and draws full of trees. Moss-covered branches held the shade over the road and darkened the interior of the woods. Fern and underbrush poked out from the shadow of the canopy — the whole wood plush and engorged with things not Iraq.

It was calming to be so far from there.

Up and down, winding around, cutting through the roads like some sort of downhill skier, we finally started to push through the surrounding columns of black until blue began to show in vertical stripes between the trees. The sky was beyond, just around this last bend until we crested the final hill and broke through the forest into a clear patch of descending road.

There was the ocean, a huge blue-green wind capped sheet, stretching north to south as far as we could see from our gusty vantage. The strong winds whipped the approaching seas into marbled waves, foam frothing at the crags and rocks.

The retreating glaciers from a prior age carved the hell out of the land here in Oregon, leaving amazing cliffs and cutouts along the coasts. The Pacific — damn cold this far north, is hardly suitable for unsuited swimming, leaving the wide swaths of wet-sand beaches devoid of cancer-seeking sunbathers and ripe for the wandering romantic.

The brisk chill of wind and surf makes Oregon beaches a sort of standoff-ish beauty. Humans don’t just strip off all abandon and occupy its beaches. They are a thing to visit and marvel, but hardly to invade or tarnish.

Miles later we had found a place to leave the car and walk down to the water. I looked hard — again, no Iraq. A few dozen beach-goers were making sand sculptures or playing with their children. Laughs and the smells of chowder from beach-front eateries lilted over the waves and wind.

This was it, my piece of America. There was no trash, no grime, no hidden bombs, no wreckage. It was hard-fought and cherished, at least by my part.

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Takes some time

The Salmons family.

The Salmons family.

“How does it feel to be home?”

You know? I have no idea. I was wondering if there would be a gush of emotion. I saw it in lots of other guys all just itching to be back home with their wives and children. It wasn’t a huge deal for me though.

I was glad to be visiting home, that’s for sure, but there wasn’t this soul-infusing, life-changing, heaven-opening outpouring of excitement on my part. Is that weird?

In the weeks leading up to my leaving Iraq, the question was a bit different – “How does it feel to be going home?” They’d all ask.

I’d play it down, no big deal. It’s the way I deal with things I look forward to; I ignore them until they arrive. Christmas? That’s nearby? Hrmmm, hardly noticed. Poof it’s December 24th and I’m free to enjoy the moment, all sans of the nail-biting anticipation of the preceding nights.

It was the same way for this shindig. While everyone around me was counting down the days for their own departures – some days away, some months to go, there I sat, blind to the approach of my own plane ride to two-weeks freedom.

And it worked. Poof, I was flying home, two sleeping pills to the wind, dozing away the 20 hours from Kuwait to Dallas, one step closer to Oregon, where the family was.

I was numb. I got on the next plane, Portland bound. I sat next to a private – the only other soldier heading to the northwest locale, and heard about how he was going to get acquainted with his Mrs. for the entire four hours.

Finally, we touched down, and walked down the gangway. I let my aroused companion to go ahead, not to get caught up in his excitement, while I shuffled through my own stuff and took in the moment.

I had arrived, safe and sound to where my family was waiting, just a good walk down the terminal, and I didn’t feel anything. Again, glad to be there, but not break-down-and-cry sort of excited.

Come to think of it, I had put most emotions on hold for the past seven months. Sure, there were things to get a person excitable in Iraq, and I am an excitable person, but other than tromping off half-cocked about some minuscule Army BS tidbit now and then, I don’t know if I’d had many life-changing moments in Iraq. At least, none that made for more than a good story here and there.

Drowned in all the mundane, life-siphoning politics of modern war, I may have forgotten how to feel.

So when people ask me how it feels to be home, I sort of give this smile and standard “great” response. But really, I have no idea.

Our chaplain briefed us on how things will be weird when we get back, and how it will take some time to reintegrate into normal life outside of assault weapons and the imminent threat death and dismemberment.

I guess this is my quirk.

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Stateside

Whew! After being in the air for over 24 hours, I’m finally home.

It’s weird. That’s all I can say. I won’t go into a big romp about getting used to life in the states, partly because it’s been said a hundred times before, partly because I don’t need to play the “weary battle-hardened veteran, home from war” card, and partly because I’ll only be back for two weeks — no need to lament a stage in life I’m fixin’ to return to.

Pulling into Dallas (one of the main return hubs in the states) was a tremendous experience. Although it was just a quick few minutes as we scattered and ran to our respective connecting flights, I’ll never forget it.

That jarring wheels-hitting-ground sensation rose up a cheer in the cabin as it finally hit home that we were in the states.

It was 10-ish in the morning, Easter Sunday. The plane slowed and turned toward the terminals. Out of our left and right sides, airport fire trucks were waiting and hosed down our plane as we passed by — sort of like a drive-through car wash. It’s a tradition, I learned, as a sort of “washing off the dust of Iraq” thing.

A few minutes later we deplaned and did the Customs romp again. This stage was pretty streamlined since we had done all the hardcore bag inspections back in Kuwait. Thankfully, we didn’t have to dump out everything again.

Leaving the Customs area in ones and twos, the was an older man in a sports jacket and wicker hat adorned in VFW pins. He shook our hands and pointed us to the next room. “Welcome back sarge,” he threw my way.

In the next room, on Easter Sunday, mind you, were dozens of people lining the walkway, cheering and waving flags.

I was able to shake hands with a lot of them — men, women, veterans with their pins showing their service in Vietnam and Desert Storm, kids with their parents saluting us and handing out candy. It was a total surprise and completely amazing.

Most touching were the few guys from Vietnam who grabbed hold and hugged me, tears in their eyes. “God bless you, sergeant!” they said, “Welcome home.” You could feel that they were genuinely moved to see us, and that blew me away. All that I could say was “thanks” and a few “good to be back”. I didn’t know what else to do. These were guys with several purple hearts, infantry badges and the like — real heroes. The fact that they came by to say hi to me was incredible.

There were also all manner of USO and other VFW volunteers there to hand out cigarettes and candy to us as we walked by.

I definitely hadn’t expected anyone to be there, especially on Easter Sunday. I felt bad that I couldn’t stay and talk since my connecting flight was so soon. I wanted to talk to the Vietnam guys about their war, and how they had been affected by no one being there for them when they came home.

I’ll definitely be one of those who returns the favor when my children go off to war. Regardless of what political bent someone might take on the whole war gig, the fact that a lot of people have pledged never again to forget the soldier is a moving thing.

It made me damn proud to be home, that’s for sure.

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And now, something new

Hello kind people – Seth here with an update. Josh wants you all to know that he will be absent for a short time due to current blackout comms (“a restricted communications posture that limits communications” 04 APR 06 – ‘Blackout and blue sky’). Very soon Josh will be on leave to visit his family in the USA. I’m willing to bet anyone my Space Pen that he will find a portal to the internet and contact you again at that time. Until then, if you have any questions feel free to post them. Josh sends you his love and affection.

(I won’t actually bet my Space Pen, but if you want to go 50 bucks or something I can do that. It just doesn’t sound as reckless to say I’ll bet you 50 bucks as it does to say I’ll bet you my SPACE PEN that writes upside-down, underwater and in a frickin’ vacuum and I really like to be known as one of those ‘throws-all-caution-to-the-wind’ type guys. Also, instead of 50 bucks maybe we should just make it an even 5 and if you want to do that you’ll have come here so we can shake hands and make it official.)

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What time is it?

Our visiting Army Times reporter.

Our visiting Army Times reporter.

Army Times.

They’re here, since Thursday. A photographer and reporter, here to cover our unit. The reporter grew up in the same hometown as my commander. So they know each other partially from knowing the same people, and run-ins during a prior OIF rotation.

So, our unit’s normal self-imposed media blackout was lifted to allow them to visit.

Other units have had an odd dozen or so reporters, but this is a first for us. Exciting.

Well, I take that back. Exciting, yes – insomuch as it’s a chance to do actual stuff related to my job. Exciting, no – due to the incredible amount of politicking that’s going down amongst the leaders of our subordinate units.

Luckily for us, the colonel wants the journalists to do their own thing, which has allowed us to reject all of the attempts by these other units to come in and wrest control of our guests.

You see, the other units want exclusive access to the reporters to show off their stuff. It’s how they treat my boss and I; but with civilians, that sort of bullying doesn’t necessarily fly.

And I admit, I do get a secret pleasure in responding to emails that say “You will have the reporters here by 0900 to cover my Bravo Company Field Artillery Unit” with a succinct “Negative, sir.”

I know we’re not making many friends with this visit, but since A) we’re following the colonel’s orders and B) they treat us like crap anyway – regardless of how often we run to help them out; I’m not too worried.

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Bacon and sheep guts

Men gather with fires here and there.

Men gather with fires here and there.

Morning woke up like it always did. The new light showed stirring in the streets and alleys. We passed by a village and market while on our patrol. Iraq started off its day.

Okay, maybe not Iraq in total, but our little piece. Fires were started with available rubbish. Men congregated in groups waiting for busses, or just talking. The women in their shrouds went here and there.

Animals came out in small flocks, attended by small children. Men opened the gates to their shops and put out their wares on rusty hangers, draped from rusted awnings, kept off the muddy gullies and rivets cut through the grime by packs of pickup trucks.

Crushed cans, scraps of paper and bits of Styrofoam, plastic bottles and other filth were awash in mud to make a sort of pavement in the streets. The smoke painted the air gray and, in fact, all color seemed to bleed from the world as the dawn left, replaced by grays and browns and ruddy faces.

A boy hunches over his freshly killed sheep.

A boy hunches over his freshly killed sheep.

Up ahead was a boy, crouching over a slaughtered sheep, glaring at us over his shoulder like a lion over a fresh kill.

“See that?” my TC asked. “Killing sheep.” He was a Reserve soldier on his second year in Iraq. He had extended just to take his current job – commanding patrols that looked for IEDs. Said he felt he was making a difference. “And the money’s good too,” speaking about his tour, not sheep killing.

“Wow,” I answered back, not knowing what to say, really. It was my first witnessed sheep slaughter.

“They throw the guts across the street for the dogs to eat.” After hitting our turn-around point, we passed by the boy again, still carving out a meal. The opposite portion of the street was a pale yellow-green, strewn with bits and pieces of what I guess were entrails and organs.

“Nice,” again, not quite sure what to say.

“What? The guts? Yeeeeaaaaah,” the TC said.

“Mmmmmmm!” Yelled our gunner from up top. “Smells better than my Myrmited bacon!” He had been going on and on about the containers of food that would be waiting for us after we finished the sweep. Since the headquarters for the quick-reaction force I was riding with was so far from the dining facility, they trucked in “Myrmites” – the name for the big plastic tubs used to keep food warm/cold – to save the soldiers from having to travel too far to eat.

Apparently, our gunner liked pork.

Gunner looks off for trouble.

Gunner looks off for trouble.

“You keep that sheep sh*t over there, I’m a gonna have me some bacon!!” He screamed to the winds.

We got several looks from the locals as we passed. I wonder if any of them picked up on the pork reference, or if it would have offended anybody. Just another crazy American sticking his head into their lives in his own little way.

“What’s with the cars?” I asked, managing out four words over the roar of the humvee.

“Up ahead? Oh that’s the gas station,” my TC explained. “They’ll be waiting all day for gas. See ‘em in groups? They’ll just sit there all day. It’s a government gas station though, so it’s only 25 cents a gallon, but you got to wait a looooong time.”

A typical line at a gas station.

A typical line at a gas station.

I had seen packs of cars like that all over Iraq. Waiting for traffic or gas or whatever seemed to be a common thing – I had noticed it on lots of other go’rounds with other missions. Sure was a stark contrast from the go-go-go stateside lifestyle.

Just another morning in just another village.

Just another morning in just another village.

A lot of people ask me what it’s like in Iraq. Apart from the top few percent who wine and dine with visiting politicians, it’s the poor-man’s life for most.

In the south waged the great ideological struggle – the war on “terror”. Here, in the shadow of the epic global struggle against violent extremism, most just eked out another day among the trash, sheep, bombs and rocket fire.

An hour of electricity here and there, a tanker of gas on occasion, some lamb to go with the bread and rice. Mostly, time just was.

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