Archive | June 2006

Coming of age

Fillin' radios, son!

Fillin’ radios, son!

Iraq nighttime summer missions are hot.

While the air cools off to a modest 90-something, the reserves held within the stone and metal continue to pour out misery to all cooler-clime-based individuals, well into the night.

Add the typical combat load: armored vest, shoulder pads, side inserts, side pads, loin protector, throat protector, weapon, helmet, gloves, ammo, med pack, weapon, and, in my case, a camera bag; and you have one recipe for salt encrusted uniforms post mission.

Packed into the space behind the truck commander, I felt like some muscle-bound brute trying to reach across my armored chest to check my equipment. Already my legs were aching, sharing foot space with our spare spotlight, used to ID potential “gifts” from our insurgent friends.

We pulled up to the gate and awaited our “SP” (start point) time. It was a lot like airports with gate schedules, sometimes you got stuck behind a few convoys ready for takeoff. We were second or third in line, which translated into 15th or 20th for aircraft since a dozen cargo-laden vehicles are a bit harder to get up to speed and in line than is a 757. You sit there, with the lights blacked out, the “air conditioning” blowing Iraq-temperature air on the one-inch portion of your sweat-soaked skin not covered by ballistic padding; waiting to leave.

I cracked open a Rip-It, our energy drink of choice this season (apparently Red Bull, Monster and other vendors are allowed to showcase their wares in our dining facilities only on certain months to maximize fairness). Gone in two gulps, I threw the can aside and groped in the monitor illumined, quasi dark for the bottle of water I had set down earlier. No luck.

I went through all the equipment checks in my head and started to realize something: we were the old kids on the block. Just a few weeks away from leaving, we were starting to train other units in how to work the roads. That was my story, to cover how the training program was going for a Puerto Rican National Guard unit that operated out of the capital.

A few minutes earlier, when we were staging, the newer guys listened with rapt attention at the briefings the older guys knew by heart — convoy speed, intervals, reaction to enemy fire…. Some of our cats started to make jokes and laugh and had to be told to settle down, just like the seasoned jokers that we replaced did on our first few convoys.

It was a good feeling, almost being done. It helped me wear the ache in my legs like a badge of honor, since I knew the new guys just feeling the pain wouldn’t be faring as well. Call it an initiation, I guess, learning all of the discomforts of road patrols and convoy escorts.

Those were the parts of patrols that the others back at the office never saw — the parts that you remember when a fobbit brags, “Man…wish I could get out on the road — go outside the wire. Sucks that they don’t let me.” Yeah, it’s glorious, right down to the musky smell of the radio headsets.

“We’re rolling!”

We started moving into the road to exit the gate, trucks firing up their headlights in succession. Now was the time to see if all their classroom work made any difference when facing the real deal.

“Gun three is red.”

And we were off.

###

Case of the Mondays

One of my dining partners noticed it after another silent meal and walk back.

“There’s a sort of different vibe ‘round lately. I dunno. You feel it?”

It wasn’t any sort of bad, just different, yeah, and blaah. Everybody was sort of shambling along, like the double-digit rounds in a title fight. In the fight, barely.

Every meeting lately they tell you the same thing. “Finish strong! Now’s not the time to let up.” We’re trying, but the foot is definitely off the accelerator.

It’s sort of like the waning episodes of a TV show season. The major crises have been solved and there’s an introspective lull, just before the cliff hanger, where everything is out of danger. People look back and remember the “glory days” of some episodes back, where everything was new and scary and dangerous. Survival was minute-by-minute, and stuff was uncertain.

Now, though, we’re past all the major “whoopses.” Everybody has gone on leave, even the colonel. Now all that’s left is to ride it out and hope nobody gets knocked off in the final weeks.

The major rhythm is still in place. Another general’s visit soon. Another convoy coming up. Up to a quota of 200 pictures per week for some damn slide show.

But then it hits me. Two words that sap my already languid disposition: another year. There’s another cycle of this for ol’ Salmons. It’s like a wound that bleeds the strength out of my day. Another year, wow. Hard to think about now, so I’ll just focus on this iteration, where we’re nearly in the single digits for “weeks to go.” Aaaah, much better!

Yes, I will definitely be ready to get on out of the service when it’s time for me to get on out. Until then, just 60-some-odd more Mondays before I can flip this war the bird.

###

Hawking bootlegged ethics

Yesterday I was at one of the local Iraqi-run bootleg stores…

…which, as an aside, brings up a very interesting point, ethically. There are actually posted memorandums at some of these stores, outlining commander’s intent, when they should be open, that the store operators should be treated with respect, etc. The point is that these shops are not only tolerated, but officially sanctioned as “morale boosters.”

Now, I’m not on a witch hunt here, but it is interesting, isn’t it? Every day soldiers are tasked with “escorting” these Iraqis. They sit in the shops and keep an eye on things, on hand to settle any disputes on prices or to only let in 10 customers at a time — that sort of stuff. Significant amounts of military assets are used to guard these locations, tax dollars are spent, yadda yadda.

Now, those that read this blog from OIF locales are probably saying, “Awww, com’on ‘Salsa killer’! Shut up! We love those shops.”

And so do I, but it doesn’t change the fact that the primary product sold at these places are pirated movies, pirated computer programs and pirated console games, all in direct violation of international and United States copyright law.

There, I said it, back to the story…

So I was browsing the selection (yes, I’ve bought some before, I won’t cast the first stone, kay?), killing some time after dropping off a soldier who worked in the vicinity of the shop.

I said “hi” to all the shop guys in the normal Arabic fashion (forgive me for not trying to spell the greeting), shook their hands and the like. A lot of soldiers look at me weird when I talk to the Iraqis, and some make comments.

“Why do you talk to them?”

“No reason, just thought they’d like someone to say ‘hi’ to them.”

The same would be the case when I talk to the Indian guys who work at our dining facility. Hell, I’m a celebrity there. First, they figured out my name was Salmons, like the fish. That got ’em started. Then they saw me come a few times with a camera to take shots of goings on. I get a lot of fist pounds, handshakes, pats on the back, and genuine hello’s out of that crowd.

I love it, and figured the guys could use someone who wasn’t just barking out, “Gimme chicken. No! That, right there. Next to the fish. Gimme more.” You know, someone to treat them like people instead of servants?

“What’s the deal with all the ‘hi’s’ and ‘hello’s’? You a spy or somethin’?” some staff sergeant asked me the other day.

“Spy? These guys are Indian, not Iraqi.”

“I don’t give two sh*ts, as long as the cocksucker doesn’t spit in my food.”

Yeah…

The movie shop was little more than a 15-foot concrete cube, lined with shelves of little baggies, each with a printed leaflet and an unlabeled DVD disc. A couple of florescent bulbs put out a garish light over the library. Sun, heat and dust flew in from the open doorway. Most of the movie copies were of some guy with a camcorder, video taping from a theater. You know the drill, pure bootleg.

In the corner, mounted above the shelves was a 12-inch TV, blaring a selected title. The shopkeepers usually put in one of the new releases or a disc of hip-hop music videos. Between the heat and the washed out, maxed volume, time in the store usually was kept to a minimum. Maybe that’s why the owners did it, to keep traffic moving.

Today’s movie was an Iraqi film. It caught my eye as I stepped around dozens of boxes of “Lost: The Complete Series” ($30, by the way, can’t beat that, eh?).

It was in Arabic (obviously), and the actors were Iraqis, but the uniforms looked familiar.

The scene was at night. A convoy of vehicles had stopped. Iraqi civilians were packed in a cargo container which was on the back of a military transport. Several humvees were going along when someone stopped the convoy.

Out stepped the quintessential “badass” soldier character. He had on a sleeveless uniform top, unbuttoned, was helmetless and had his hair grown out into some sort of mohawk-looking thing. He sort of reminded me of Colin Farrell in “Tigerland” if that helps.

There were American flags on the sleeves of the other soldiers, which would explain the humvees.

The Colin Farrell guy starts shouting orders to several “American” extras, who stay in their vehicles. Some arguing starts between Colin and a lieutenant who walks up to confront him. Colin takes an AK-47 from a nearby trooper, defiantly loads it, glaring at the lieutenant, and starts firing at the civilian-filled container.

The trapped civilians scream and are mowed down. There’s lots of blood and moaning. The Farrell guy laughs, throws the rifle down and walks away from the shocked lieutenant, who yells for him. Colin pulls out a pistol, shoots the lieutenant and jumps into a humvee.

By now I was really watching, mouth agape. I was the only customer in the store, and the Iraqis were watching me watch the movie.

One of them came up, “This. This is Iraq. This happened. You watch. You see. This is Iraq. My brother. This.” Pointing feverishly, he looked to me to see if I understood.

Wow, did I? Would I show it?

The whole world shrank and there I was, ambassador to Iraq, meeting with the Iraqi delegate. Would I pledge that this would never happen again? Would I cry to show my feelings?

Was the massacre true? It didn’t matter. These guys believed it, that was enough.

The rest of them all were watching me intently, to see my reaction. I was their welcomed guest — a customer to their shop, but I had touched on something they weren’t selling, per se.

Was this a test? I had greeted everyone properly, asked how they were, was respectful. Were they reaching out to me? Was this the proper place for all that?

I turned back to the TV. The container had reached a village and people were mourning. Fathers cried for their children, wives for their husbands. Dozens in anguish.

The english-speaking Iraqi was right behind me. I felt tense, watched for a few more seconds, and walked out.

Maybe they would think I didn’t understand what they were saying.

Jesus, that was a lot to drop on a guy. It was like they were asking if I cared about them, about Iraq and the whole way the war is being fought, all at once.

I didn’t have an answer.

###

For the missing

Two soldiers are missing after an incident Friday night.

Learning of a death or series of deaths of soldiers is hard enough, but at least the matter of their end state is known. Missing troops is another matter entirely.

The notion that they could be in a house just miles away, tucked in some basement with masked men holding knives to their throats, it’s just debilitating.

The story was making its way through the news channels yesterday and my office was in rapt attention to the TV when I walked in.

“What’s going on?” I asked, just back from a picture-taking outing.

“Two soldiers are missing,” someone said, eyes still fixed on the screen.

Wow. That hadn’t happened in a while. Not taken alive.

“They were at a checkpoint? How’d they get taken alive?” our admin Lt. asked.

“They wouldn’t get me. I’d fight to the end. They’d have to shoot me,” another of the gathered crowd bragged. Fobbits all, never left the base before. I found the discussion in poor taste.

“You say that, but it’s another thing when you’re living through it,” I offered, but was run over by the continued discussion. I hardly am out as much as some, but more than others.

“Yeah, f*** that! I’d go out two guns blazing! You’d never get me.”

“How’d they sneak up on a checkpoint?”

“They must have been sleeping. That’s the only way you could do it. That’s it; see what happens when soldiers get complacent?”

“Sir, we weren’t there. We have no idea what happened,” I tried again, but realized I sounded like some stereotyped journalist ideologue. Besides, no one was listening.

“Ya, that must have been it. Not paying attention. They probably had one guy out checking vehicles and the other sleeping.”

I let the rest of the macho “were it me” discussion play out. At first I was really bothered by all the judging and “blame the victim” talk, but there were multiple dimensions to all of this.

It emasculates soldiers to keep them locked away on a base, shuffling paperwork, attending briefings and stressing over issues like whether or not we can wear PTs to the dining facility. Those sorts of things aren’t what are depicted in our legends — movies of troops storming beaches, saving the day, pulling dozens of men from withering enemy fire.

You see, we all secretly want to be Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan,” or at least that bad ass sniper guy. We all want to be the paragon of courage, strength and honor that we grow up watching. That’s why you’ll see Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Braveheart and Band of Brothers on almost every GIs hard drive. We live in the shadows of these made up characters.

So when we parade off to war — after kissing goodbye our girlfriends, families and loved ones; and find out that our lot is to pull dining facility guard, escort the Iraqi cleaning crew through the bathrooms everyday, or even to just drive a truck, it tosses a big ol’ bucket of water on our dreams of glory.

“Grandpa, why do you walk with a cane?”

“I was wounded at war.”

“Wow, tell me the story!”

“Well, I had just finished watching the Iraqis mop the floor for the 46th week, I got off work and went to play basketball. I fell and tore some ligaments in my leg. That’s why I limp.”

That’s part of the reason for all the talk about “would of” and “what I’d do.” These poor bastards are nine months into their deployment with naught to show for it but the dreamt up stories gleaned from news and other troops who go “outside the wire.” Like it’s some huge honor, and I suppose it is, on a strange level.

Another dimension to the macho talk is to reassure ourselves that our military might could never fail.

It’s downright scary to think that these missing Joes could be snatched from a heavily armed and adequately manned checkpoint. So, we say they were sleeping — that they weren’t paying attention, and were caught. We sort of blame them.

You see the same thing in rape cases. Well, what was she wearing? Did she say anything? Instead of recognizing the fact that people blatantly commit evil acts on innocents, the system is defended by blaming the victim.

Yes it’s in poor taste, but I chalk it up to guys being afraid, and let them have their bit of talk.

After a few minutes, there was a lull in the conversation. “Hey, what are they talking about now?” asked one of the onlookers. “That’s it? On to Brittany Spears? That’s all for the soldiers? What the f***?”

I did have to laugh, “Yes, sergeant, welcome to the 27-minute news cycle.”

“That’s f***** up!”

“That’s the way it is, sergeant — the world in a half hour.”

“F***’in media. Why do they have to be like that?”

Twenty minutes later, the topic in the office was “The Omen” and “X-Men 3”. We forget too.

Pray for the missing.

###

Whatever she said

I’ve heard a lot of questions and views from other people, talking to me about being in Iraq.

Some wondered if I was looking forward to coming here, “Aren’t you excited?” she asked. “Wow, the idea of visiting a whole other country. It’s great.”

“What are the shopping malls like there?” someone else put out. Shopping malls? WTF?

“Do you have any Iraqi roommates? Are they nice?”

“Did you go clubbing while you were there?”

At the airport on the way home when I was on leave, the waitress at the Dallas airport Chili’s was wondering where all the guys in uniform were going.

“Some of us are going to Iraq, others are coming home.”

“Wow, we’re still over there?” she asked. “I thought the president said it was over like years ago.”

Wow is right. Look friends, it’s not college. It’s not Friday out on the town. It’s not fun. There are no roommates. There is no shopping. We don’t visit the sights — there are no sights. We’re locked inside our bases. No one goes out because mean people try to kill you out there. We’re just doing our time in purgatory, earning a ticket home.

If left to the Iraqis, everything thrives on cheap, imitation products. Imitated shoes, bootleg movies, bootleg satellite TV, cheap bicycles, cheap Internet hookups. There are no building codes, everything is out in the open — pipes, wires, whatever. Electricity shorts out. Things break. Everything is dirty. If you fix something up, it gets stripped as soon as the lights go out. So people don’t fix things up.

“Hey, you, is this all the episodes of ‘Lost’?”

“Sa, yes sa.”

“All of them, so if it doesn’t work, I can bring it back?”

“All them, sa. Yes sa.”

“If it doesn’t work, I can bring it back?”

“Bak? Yes sa.”

There is no grass. There is no pavement. Salt oozes out of the ground. The water smells like sewage. Dust fills the air. Hygiene is optional. It’s a part of the culture to lie if it “saves face.” It’s a part of the culture to get out of doing any kind of work. It’s a part of the culture to work only for one’s family and to hell with the rest of the country.

Trash is everywhere. Fires burn constantly, filling the sky with smoke. Toxic chemicals drip into pools that run into the water…all of it an environmentalist’s nightmare.

This isn’t a two-week vacation. This isn’t an exchange program, or a summer internship. This is life outside of American affluence.

Hope is preached by politicians with cash-lined pockets. In the streets, children gut sheep, then play in the green-black waters of nearby pools.

Men endure hours of searches to come on American camps and run booths, selling fake Rolexes, hacked XBoxes, pirated software and bootlegged movies.

And as we all say, “Hell, a few strip clubs and bars outside the gates and this place will be Korea.”

Indeed.

###

Al Asad revisited

Some of my comrades in arms.

Some of my comrades in arms.

Did I get on about Al Asad? Yes? Well, here’s some more.

A few weeks ago I was charged to travel to Al Asad with our PSD guys. PSD, as in Personal Security Detail. You see, when first arriving in Iraq, the colonel wanted a special super-uber, select group of high-speed soldiers to serve as his personal bodyguard detail. They were outfitted with the best equipment, given separate quarters, and left completely alone; to ensure they’d be ready at a moment’s notice if the colonel wanted to go anywhere.

Well, turns out we mostly fly everywhere when necessary, so no need for a PSD. But, the band of harried war fighters remained, and started their quest to have a mission. Here and there, they’d go out, and I’d been there through several of their crazy adventures; but life was slow and boring for the mechanics-turned-super-killers.

One of the missions they were given was escorting the 1st Iraqi Truck Company off and on, the Iraqi unit on Taji that we help out. So the call came down for the group to truck off to Al Asad, an outpost waaaaay out west, near the Syrian border.

How and why they went was to be the subject of a story. A story I prepared and went on this convoy for. Nevertheless, after returning – and after I had written the thing – it was decided that the whole enterprise was too sensitive, intelligence wise. Scrap the story. Oh, alright.

Iraqi dude waits to start the convoy in his truck.

Iraqi dude waits to start the convoy in his truck.

Anyway, traveling with Iraqis is always a trip. Those boys love to take off in their Mercedes trucks, and we’re always blaring at them to slow down. We Americans have speed limits, we tell them, and they just laugh and laugh.

Also, I pity the fool who…well, never mind. Ask me sometime over a few dozen drinks.

Al Asad. A base run mostly by Marines. Desolate, and on the end of an incredibly dangerous stretch of roads. My heart cried out to Jesus a few times after…hrmmm. Again, drinking stories.

Lovely vista, no?

Lovely vista, no?

We pulled in to the Iraqi portion of the camp, a patch of sun-blasted land tucked away on some corner. Strange heat waves were emanating from the port-a-potties, the Iraqi’s only option for relief.

“Yikes, check that out,” I said to Sgt. M, a walking tank of a guy, his second year in Iraq as a gunner. I think he was a mechanic before, but got detailed out to do this sort of thing then, was pretty good at it, and is continuing to take down bad guys on the trigger this time around too. Crazy bastard just reenlisted to reclass to 11B infantryman. God bless him, he’s our go to guy for all things tactical.

“Yeah, wait till you get in there,” he said, smiling.

Hrmm, it would wait a bit. We pulled our bags out of the back of the trucks and went to our own wooden shack, where we’d bed down for a few hours before getting ready for the trip back. Al Asad is about six to seven hours west of Taji – a pretty long jaunt. We’d need some sleep and MWR time before flipping it to fire back.

Hot. The wooden shelves and tin roof weren’t very conducive to a cool clime. Thank God we were able to monkey around with the air conditioning unit to get things down to a mild 80 to 90 before the three-digit degrees baked us out of there. Air conditioning – a prerequisite for modern war.

The 105 degrees and metal roof made it awesome.

The 105 degrees and metal roof made it awesome.

Funny. Sometimes I feel like a Roman soldier, stationed out here, bringing Roman ideas and architecture, insisting on building bath houses and proper barracks to endure the environment. I guess not much has changed.

The time came to utilize “the facilities,” and I made my way to the four port-a-pots sitting away from the rest of the encampment.

Jesus God! Apparently the Iraqis either aren’t on the contractor’s cycle or they don’t care, but if you’ve ever stepped into a port-a-potty without that blue chemical stuff in the 110-degree desert, then you can help a brother testify. There it was, two or three feet of soupy, raw sewage, wafting an almost tactile billow of gas into the compartment, and through the tiny slats along the top of the unit. That would account for the extra shimmer surrounding the things.

And ladies? Don’t think about it. The Iraqis squat, so the seat is covered in all the mud and muck that we shlep through out here.

Whoa. There might have been more to that day, but I’m gonna need a little bit to get all that out of my head.

###

Iraq is melting my Internet

When your routers are in a particle board box, on a cot, next to a trailer, out in the sun…in Iraq, things heat up. In fact, by noon to past midnight, the heat nukes the hardware to incredibly slow speeds, if it works at all. So, sorry for the no-picture posts as of late, it’s difficult to get the frame rate up to a decent 1kb/sec in order to put up some pictures.

No worries, though. In case you haven’t checked it out, please visit Save the Internet. It’s a site dedicated to fighting for “Net Neutrality,” a hot topic for the docket.

Net Neutrality basically is the concept that all data on the Internet flowing through the wires of the world is equal — the system we use now. Phone companies want to change that to make the Internet more like cable, where you pay for “popular” content, like movie or sports channels. Charges might pop up to get to sites like ESPN or what-have-you, since they generate so many hits.

But mainly they want to charge sites themselves for the privilege of “information safe passage.” Meaning, if Amazon wants to make sure its customers can view Amazon.com, the company would have to pay the telephone companies a fee.

What does that mean for the average consumer? Well, prices of things online will go up, as these “fees” will be passed to the customer.

Sites like this blog might go away if I have to pay an extra fee per month to get you all here, in addition to the hosting fees and connection fees I already pay. No thanks.

Email might be delayed if you don’t pony up the money to “ensure” it gets to a recipient in a timely manner.

Online games might start to lag as phone companies would eagerly tax the bandwidth.

Of course, both sides of the issue are frothing, rabbit zealots. Net Neutrality advocates say it’ll be the end of the Internet, phone companies say they won’t charge too much. Who knows?

###

Death, the Constitution and Salsa

So, the infamous Al-Zarqawi was killed the other day. I found out after my boss read it on CNN.

“Hey, we got Al-Zarqawi.” I said to a few people as they walked in and out of the office (being put in the personnel section meant an ample sample of peeps to throw jokes and news at).

“Who?”

“Zarqawi, one of the terrorist guys.”

“Oh…so?”

“I dunno, just was saying.”

Not that we’ll get to come home any sooner, and we’ll have to see if any of the bombs stop. My guess is “no” since all of the mess in Iraq is hardly the doing of one guy. But, I guess it’s better than another day with nothing going on. Oh, and don’t hate on the soldiers for not knowing who he was. We can be just as vacuous as folks at home.

***

I see that the Senate has stopped “President Bush: The Legacy (Plan B).” I had planned a big, long post about the matter, but felt enough had been said.

In short, bravo to the Senate for putting an end to this thing. I mean, really, did we need to amend the frikkin’ Constitution over this thing? Are denying tax breaks and hospital visitation rights to homosexuals the front-burner issues of the day? I mean, we can’t pass a Civil Rights Amendment, but we were going to pass this thing? Okay, I’m done.

***

Military journalists take crap from soldiers all year. Most of the time, we’re labeled as one of “the media” by the insecure conservatives in the ranks, which is tantamount to all other icons of evil.

No biggie, but it does make our jobs a little tricky, especially when seniors and leadership share the same view.

Some notable quotes:
“You know what I want to do to all the media? Shoot ’em…every…last…one of them,” as per our company NBC NCO.

“The media is responsible for a lot of the deaths in Iraq,” as per our brigade safety officer.

“You’re one of thoes ‘media’ types aren’t you? Who did you vote for last time, Kerry or Bush? If it’s something I just can’t stand it’s another ‘liberal media’ person,” as per one of our seemingly endless supply of “battle captains” (i.e. PowerPoint gurus).

One of the aspects of being a military journalist is working to get actual journalists to come and cover the unit where you are assigned. Normally there isn’t much trouble garnering interest — “embedded media” is the trend, and news stations are all too eager to send their daring reporters to the ends of the earth to cover the “war” (and earn Pulitzers).

Yet, when a unit leadership has little love for the media, such efforts are frustrated. Time after time, embed requests would be sent out to division units from NBC, CBS, print sources, radio sources, television sources — heck! even National Geographic. All flatly denied by the command.

Jesse James even wanted to film an episode of “Monster Garage” with our mechanics. Denied. So, it went to our higher headquarters. I was able to hitch a flight and watch the filming (check out the December archives).

And so, I was very surprised when my colonel announced that we were getting a reporter from the Army Times to come visit for a few days. Apparently, she was a friend of his that he had ran into during a previous deployment. They were scheduled to visit in April, right before I went on leave.

I was told on several occasions to let her and her photographer go and write about whatever. Talk about a change of heart! Sure, okay, fine.

The visit went pretty well. My boss and I had to fight with the our subordinate units, who, when smelling exposure, tried sweeping in to take the journalists from us and for themselves. One unit even wrote out the reporters’ daily schedule, down to the half hour, filled only with their own shops and people.

“Where are they?” one of the majors called up, in a panic, the first morning we didn’t abide by his calendar.

“Sorry sir, they didn’t want to come,” I said back.

“Well, they’re going to miss the 1030 briefing.”

“The colonel wanted them to decide for themselves what to write about.”

“Harrumph!” (He didn’t actually say “harrumph” but made the sound…you get the idea.)

After bouncing around several story ideas, the Army Times pair decided on our brigade’s Consolidated Shipping and Receiving Point — a sort of FedEx “hub” where supplies are pooled and pushed out. Wow, right?

No worries, the reporter seemed like it would be fine. On one of the down nights, she wanted to see some of the Taji nightlife (as advertised all over by posters and calendars).

One of the sights she wanted to see was “Salsa Night,” which incidentally was a constant source of ire for the commanders here on Taji. Anything that took away from family thinking we all were taking beaches and enduring months of artillery barrages was frowned upon — it made the book deals harder to sell. Salsa Night was entirely too jovial. They had been looking for a way to cancel the thing for months.

Lo’ and behold, our reporter wrote this blog about her night dancing. A blog, mind you, not a printed article.

I didn’t see it at first, but nevertheless, murmurs began about the “Army Times Salsa article” and how the “f***in journalists f***** up our fun.” Soon after the article, Salsa Night was cancelled.

As an aside: actually there was an alleged rape after one of the nights. That’s officially what cancelled it. But, turns out the girl who cried rape actually just forgot her weapon at the MWR center and, instead of fessing up and getting an Article 15 for leaving her weapon, she made up a story about being assaulted. It was bogus, but the idea that someone could be raped, and the blog, made the cancellation final.

Yes friends, for all of the work and effort my boss and I have striven to achieve, it turns out that all the “you’re worthless” comments made by our fellow soldiers have come true. Were we to continue to write stories lauding the tears and fears of our noble brethren, our legacy would be naught but that blog. I’ve been stopped thrice coming and going by people I don’t know, “You’re that camera guy, aren’t you? The one who stopped Salsa night?”

I liked the blog, actually. Everything in it was true. Salsa Night at war was a very interesting juxtaposition. It’s just too bad a lot of people over here are so hateful toward the occupation that I’ve devoted myself to, that they’re ready to write off the whole enterprise of those involved.

I’m off on a mission south for a few days. With any luck, I can end the fun there too. Death to fun! It’s like I’m back at Cedarville, my Alma matter. Dancing was forbidden there too, as was swearing, non-Christian music, concerts, movies, and holding hands; but that was more religious oppression than media exposure. And a tale for another time.

###

Origins

I remember nights in bed on a rainy winter evenings. Streets a tar black, white highlights from the pools. Street lights and outside trees shifted in the wind and sent fingers of shadow along the walls, toying with the pictures. The light was white, distant and cold.

My room in Michigan was pretty bare, not much to show for a home, bachelor’s pad though it may have been. I had a mattress, small spat of carpet, and one section of a wall where I had been adventurous and hung some things. In the mornings, the mice gnawing at the baseboards woke me. I was unemployed, a recent college grad, waiting for a job with some friends that never came.

Some months passed, draining away slowly like the slight thaw of the snow-covered streets in sunlight. I had taken to grow a beard…well, slowly taken to it. After some weeks, a passable red wisp hugged my face. I have pictures, but some things are better left to the past.

The house was fairly bare as well…and cold, damn cold. To keep our gas bill below $300 a month, we had to live with an ambient temperature in the 50s, which wasn’t an issue for my working roommates, but made for snacking on cereal in shorts a brisk experience.

It was a time in between. I didn’t have much of a purpose there. It was 2002, and the national crisis was still fresh. Jobs were scarce, especially for a video editor. I tried my hand at freelancing, graphic design and such. Work was sporadic.

My roommates Dave and Sonny both had gigs that kept them busy. I always felt like a third wheel during that spell. Dave had his music and Sonny had his film company. Me? I had a shrinking bank account.

Nearby there was coffee, an Indian joint, Chinese and a hot dog shop. Our seedy neighborhood gave us a few jolts now and then. Doors got kicked in, drugs pushed from the corner. Our lesbian neighbors kept a careful eye while the college house along our opposite wall kept up the parties. Dave’s car, a 1970-something Mercedes, didn’t have heat. In Michigan, that’s saying something. All that to say life there was pretty interesting.

With the turn of the year, I began to flirt with another drastic life change. I was good for that—completely changing my life course every two years or so. I guess it came from growing up in a military family. I was a nomad of sorts, never one to settle down, always trying to become something new. I was restless.

And so, two weeks into 2003, I was enlisted in the Army, bound to leave before the month’s close. My transition to my new me was underway.

My métier: journalist. I would be a champion of the printed word. And why not? I had spent some years establishing myself as a videographer and designer, the print world was sort of the final frontier.

And so, that’s it, how a hibernating Salmons became a soldier.

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V is for Victory (part 2)

Random Taji street corner.

Random camp corner.

The wallpaper on my computer has a shot I took during a road patrol, along the bottom is my name with the title “propagandist” underneath in lieu of “public affairs.”

It’s there as a conversation piece more than anything. “Propa-what?” most soldiers say. Well, I guess it’s a one-sided conversation piece since not many know what the heck it means.

Today I sat at my computer with another bout of writer’s block. In the chute are two stories: one about our unit’s part in the upcoming Abu Ghraib relocation, and one a forced story about a field service company down south on Seitz, one of the camps down south on the Victory Base Complex.

The Abu Ghraib piece was lauded by several layers of leadership as a huge story. “Time magazine material” said one light colonel. Sweet! A chance at some “news” news. I was ready.

So what’s going on? Well, for us, at least, we’re moving concrete barriers. That’s it, escorting concrete pillars from the prison to a few miles down the road into the VBC. Time magazine? Well, I dunno.

I spent an hour or two trying to spin it – defending freedom, staying the course, bettering the Iraqi people…nothin’. I might have to do some more interviews, this time with officers. The enlisted guys just spit it real. Concrete for now. That’s it.

The other story is about a field service company, a unit that does the laundry and sewing for units while deployed – at least the areas that aren’t contracted out by KBR. We had already done the unit-profile story and I was trying to cover something else.

“So what’s going on first sergeant?” I asked their top while I was down in Seitz.

“Nothing. Business as usual,” he said.

“Well, I heard that you guys are providing field showers to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, what’s going on with that?”

“Field showers? Nope, not doing field showers.”

“Oh, okay. Anything going on with your sewing shops…or laundry?”

“No, we don’t do much laundry anymore, that’s all KBR. The alteration shop is few and far between.”

“Okay. So is there a job in your company or a soldier you want profiled? We can write about that.”

“Hrmm. How about the admin guys? You can do a story on them. They’re doing all of our awards now.”

“Alright. Sounds, uh, good.” Admin, eh? Sure, why not? I’d see where the interviews went.

Two specialists process paperwork. They work out at the gym, miss home, and don’t like Iraq just like the other 130,000 troops in theater. Hrmmm. Again, I spent an hour or two trying to spin it – spreading democracy, fighting the good fight, keeping the faith…nothin’.

So, I started writing this post until something sparked.

Abu Ghraib? Let’s see…Moving Abu to the VBC will mean one less base to run. That means less places to run water and gas to. So…that means reducing a convoy, I’d say…and that means less soldiers on the road. Bong! Drawing down forces! Saving soldiers’ lives! Letting Iraqis take charge! Spreading happiness and democracy to the masses! Now I’d just need someone to say all that.

The field service company? Hrmm…admin guys…going to the gym…maintaining readiness…naw. Who knows what a FSC does? Not many. So, who knows who takes care of FSC soldiers? Probably fewer still. This one would be a bit of a stretch, but I’ll do a little “unsung heroes of the unsung heroes” bit. I don’t know if the other soldiers of the FSC see these guys as heroes, but who reads this stuff other than the parents of the soldiers anyway?

That’s two for the propagandist.

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