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.”


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.”



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, 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?


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