Archive | July 2006

Salmons trippin’

In the night at a “blackout” post, there are few signs to point you toward your destination. After stepping out from a lit building, you are enveloped in the Iraqi dark.

The horizon can be seen as a hazy orange from the black of nearby buildings, shifting to a deep purple at the sky’s apex. Depending on the haze, some stars shine through.

The first few steps outside are the most important, as Logistical Base Seitz’s buildings are always surrounded by tall, concrete barriers that shield facilities from the frequent mortar fire that goes along with existing on the civilized edge of the Army’s Victory Base Complex—also the reason for being at blackout, that is, with no headlights, streetlights, and minimal to no external lights.

Regulars on the post use their familiarity with the rocks, ditches and random piles of sandbags to give guests like me a hard time when blindly walking into the night.

“C’mon, let’s go. I gotta smoke,” my admin host teased as I took a second to let my eyes adjust.

“I can’t see a damn thing,” I said back.

“Bah! You’ll be fine. Let’s go.”

Oooof! Smacked into a barrier. Didn’t see the hard left followed by a hard right.

“Jesus, hurry up,” the smoker coughed.

Usually after standing in the dark for the minute or two it took for the smoker to have his fix, I’d be fine; but navigation around parking areas, streets, fences and other barriers were still tricky, even when pupils were at max.

The night was hardly quiet, either. Generators continued to scream through the muffling sound cases that incased them, and all manner of humvees and trucks sat idling in the near distance.

Convoys would form up and crawl along the roads leading out of the base, all without lights. Drivers usually had night vision, so as to minimize accidents while navigating through the FOB.

The small, all-terrain vehicle that sped by me with naught but a guy in PTs was a different story, as I almost was hit head on as he swerved to miss a ditch.

“You guys let them just do their thing, huh?” I asked my host, a little indignant at the close call.

“Yeah, they usually don’t hit anything.”

Later that night, after settling in, I made my way back out into the dark to find the showers—all conveniently located on the opposite side of camp.

Blackhawks and Chinooks would occasionally fly by at top speed, their own lights dimmed, in quick, shadowy roars.

One started popping flares as he descended. Twelve of them burned overhead, slowly drifting down to earth, each like a small sun in the light-starved patch of military base. A small tendril of smoke rose from them as they burned. The haze amplified the light, like headlights in the fog, and gave me a quick preview of the route I would need to negotiate through the containers and bulwarks between me and the showers.

In the distance, a call to prayer started. Our proximity to the savage Iraqi capital made the sounds of firefights, dogs (of all things) and these songs much more distinct.

With all of the normal ops through the days—regular meals, air conditioning, mattresses; sometimes I forget that I’m in Iraq. And in moments like that, hearing the sounds of a foreign city just yards away, I remember. Strange feeling, that, realizing you’re far away.

###

Faking the funk

“I’ve got you on a flight to Seitz. You’ll stay a few days,” the boss-lady said.

Another trip down south. I didn’t even know what the story was. It didn’t matter. They were all the same. Convoy to such-n-such, delivering such-n-such; or on the FOB with a unit that installs such-n-such on so many such-n-such vehicles.

Here’s how it works: We have a list of what companies and battalions are in our brigade. The commander gives us a quota—something like two stories per company, or one story per every few weeks or months. It’s a numbers thing.

No news, nothing that has to do with feelings, opinions, or current events—just reasons why the particular unit featured was the absolute best at what they did, regardless of reality.

Every mechanics shop is retrofitting ten thousand pieces a day, honing their skills through discipline and coming together as a team. Every group of fuelers is competent in their routes, confident in their leadership and ready to spread democracy. Every supply yard is projecting full-spectrum expeditionary combat logistical readiness to the forefront of theater operations.  It’s the BTJ syndrome—having to portray everyone as so amazing, they’re “better than Jesus.”

And that’s it, really—give everybody a chance for a page in the yearbook. Since everybody is perfect, everybody is equal. It’s like how we handle awards in the Army nowadays. Everybody gets a medal for showing up to work—everybody is special. The guy who sipped coffee and the guy who endured months of combat both will get the same award, depending on rank, of course.

While learning about my profession from the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Md., I became a believer. I was the scribe of the Army—a historian. I would tell the Army story, to help write history, document the victories of the American people. I would make a difference. If the news was bad, I would tell it anyway. Truth was our mantra—not just in the “root out the scandal” sense, but laying out the grim reality of war, the attitudes, feelings, and humanity of the troops. We were told to be genuine.

But the disconnect between ideal and reality was still there. And now I work for a photo booth—lights, give me a smile, click.

I’m afraid when I get home people will be a bit disappointed too. Everyone is itching for photos that “tell the story” and all I have are the standard “feature” photos that my higher-ups want—three quarter, two eyes visible, hands working—just a human prop with a different background.

Is it journalism? Am I a journalist? Does it still count toward championing truth? As long as it makes someone feel better, is that ok?

“Hey! Take my picture,” I get it a dozen times when walking around with a lens around my neck. At first I would come back with, “What are you doing that needs to have a picture taken?” Not that I was too good to take their picture, but I was constantly on the lookout for what was “happening” not just what was there.

But maybe it doesn’t matter. Now I just say “sure” and take the peoples’ picture. Maybe it’ll make them happy.

“Is this going to be on CNN?” they often ask afterward.

“No, not likely,” I’ll say. “I’m not with CNN; I’m just an Army journalist.”

“Oh,” and the excitement drains from their faces as they walk off, uninterested.

Yeah, brother, I wouldn’t be too impressed by me either.

###

Grinning all the way

Mine got turned down but whatever. Ha!

Mine got turned down but whatever. Ha!

Award ceremonies are a reality for any military photographer.

A lot of times they’re a pain, always being sprung on us at the last minute, and are more of the mundane activities we chronicle. But it’s not a huge deal.

Ironically, for all the hours we may put into stories, layouts and newsletters, it’s usually the standard and boring award photo that gets military journalists the most play from commanders and troops.

We call them “grip and grins.” You’ve seen them and probably didn’t even notice. Any time some big-wig hands out a check or award, you have that magic moment when both awardee and awarder shake hands, heads turn toward a lens, and faces let out a big cheese.

By Army regulation we are told to avoid these types of photos at all cost, as they do little to show a person’s job or personality. But fighting it is a lost cause. Most commanders want nothing but grip-and-grins.

Tonight I was tasked to head down the road a few bits and photograph an award ceremony for a group of troops receiving Combat Action Badges.

The “CAB” is given out to soldiers who experience a measure of combat. It was designed to fill the gap between infantry soldiers and other troops. You see, infantrymen have always received the Combat Infantry Badge, showing they had endured enemy fire in a combat zone. For years, scouts, tankers, and other military jobs fought alongside infantrymen, enduring the same firefights and operations; but had no award for their service. Only infantrymen could get the CIB.

Thus the CAB was born, to give those other soldiers a chance at kudos for being more than coffee whores and PowerPoint rangers.

Yet further debates have sprung up on what constitutes “combat.” Typical observers might evoke images from movies—of men diving down alleys amid volleys of rifle fire, dodging rocket-propelled grenades.

But that doesn’t happen as much in this war. We’re more of a war on the roads, in vehicles, getting blown up from IEDs. Doesn’t that deserve a CAB? And what if the explosion just causes injuries, does that deserve a CAB? What if no one is injured? What if there’s no visible damage? What if someone just notices an IED? Couldn’t they have possibly been injured? CAB?

It goes on and on, and more unscrupulous supervisors and superiors submit their troops for CABs for more outlandish reasons.

To fight that, the process for CAB approval has been purposefully mired in bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. There need to be witness statements from uninvolved parties. There must be sworn statements. There must be a diagram of a sequence of events. There must be interviews. Every story must match the sequence of events to the minute. Every witness recollection must be identical (which, if you ask police officers, is impossible).

So it takes months and months to get approved for a CAB nowadays. So the ceremony was attended by an entire artillery battery. There should be another medal for surviving the administrative process.

And there I stepped in to the makeshift auditorium, a few minutes early. It’s always a good idea to scout out the award area.

Usually if there’s a formation—that is groups of soldiers in ranks and elements, all lined up and standing a certain way, depending on commands and protocol—a photographer must map his or her paths around the formations to where the awardees are standing, and be ready to spring into action when the moment is right.

This ceremony would be easy to shoot. The formation was arranged to face a line of awardees. The commander would normally start at the left-most soldier, pin on the CAB, hand him the certificate, pause for that magic grip-and-grin moment, and move on to the next troop.

I had shot a couple hundred ceremonies (not thousands like my father, but I’m getting there), so I prepped my camera—bounce flash, 2.8 aperture, 1/60 shutter, blah blah blah.

Someone announced “brigade commander!” and we all snapped to attention. After a few seconds, I broke stance and positioned myself for the ceremony. The announcer began reading the citations.

And then they came. Out from the sidelines—unit photographers. They aren’t there in any official capacity, just guys the subordinate commanders asked to take some pictures. They start to drift around amid the goings on of the ceremony, clutching their $100 cameras, flashing the hell out of the participants.

Now I’m talking along the lines of three, not a deluge of photographically inclined. Problem is—they get in the way.

Most of my pictures turned out alright. Many didn’t. One of the “backup” photographers even came up to me afterwards.

“Did my flash get in your way? Cause yours really messed up my pictures,” he said, a little miffed.

“That’s impossible. The flashes were going off at different times. They wouldn’t have anything to do with each other,” I replied.

“Well, see? You made all of mine too bright.”

And you ruined a lot of mine, making them awkward since no one knew where to look. I thought about saying it, but I shut up. The soldier proceeded to show me his overexposed pictures, blown out from too much of his own flash.

“There, you see?” I explained. “I was bouncing my flash, so my light was coming from the ceiling. All that light is you, not me.”

“Bounce?”

Nevermind.

A message to units who call me 15 minutes before something starts and order me to take pictures: If you’re going to make me drop everything, run to your ceremony and then make me fight with four to five people taking pictures, don’t bother calling.

###

The problem stems from ignorance

I do try to stay out of the normal bouts of politics that engulf most blogs. That’s not why most come to the site. But today I had to chime in. I will be brief.

President Bush used his first presidential veto today, blocking a bill that would allow further stem cell research.

It’s an issue that has a lot of strings attached.

Firstly, I am against farming humans. I think it is an affront to raise humans like crops, just to yank out cells or organs.

That said, this veto is ridiculous.

Every day, embryos are destroyed in fertility clinics. There’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just that with in vitro fertilization, you make a dozen or so embryos, pick the best ones and chuck the rest. At best they are frozen indefinitely.

Every day–swoosh! There they go. Dead.

This bill would allow couples to VOLUNTEER to let embryos that WOULD HAVE BEEN DESTROYED to be used for stem cells. They are going to torch them, friends. The lives are going down the toilet, regardless.

Is that a tragedy in itself? You’re GD right! But the ethics of fertility clinics is an issue rich, sterile couples don’t want to see touched. “Forget the millions available for adoption! I want I want I want! Me me me me!”

All vetoing this bill does is allow those deaths to be in vain–no cures for cancer, no live-saving organ transplants, no life-improving changes for disabled and suffering people. Again, I’m not for farming people, but if you’re going to literally throw away lives–and then do nothing with the sacrifice, that’s two big red cards.

This “further research” bill isn’t what many freak out about. Babies aren’t being harvested. Humans aren’t being cloned and chopped up. It’s trying to use what’s being tossed in the garbage!

And please don’t play the religion card. Where’s the outcry against in vitro fertilization? Where’s the outcry for the thousands of conceived souls sitting in freezers somewhere with no hope to live, waiting until funding is rescinded and their lives ended in a great thaw?

It baffles me that the segment of the population of the U.S. who is fervently against any sort of stem cell research is so blinded by their religious zeal, that they would rather pour water onto the ground rather than give the suffering a drink.

And it never fails to surprise me how often people change their tune when diagnosed with a disease that could benefit from stem cell research. Convictions are swell, as long as the cause is against someone else.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, granted. But if you’re going to shoot somebody and then refuse to let the organs be donated to the dying because you’re trying to ignore the fact that you’re a murderer, that’s not right either. That’s ignorance, and just plain cruel.

###

Quick fix

I’ve broken through!

I’ve got just a minute in between work and an impending blackout-communcation phase that will take me off line for a day or two.

There’s a big interview coming up involving me and Christina Kerley, a
master interviewer of blogging netizens of the blogosphere.

It should be up by this evening. You can check it out on her blog which is also a neat place to explore the effects of blogs and other new media on the world.

I’ll be around, friends! There’s much to do and blackout comms means no talking to anyone for a bit.

Sorry! I’ll be back. Let me know how the interview went. I was there, I realize, but seeing it is a little different!

***

Update: Well, it seems like the blackout is taking its time. Alright then…

***

A couple of days ago there was a show in town.

Every so often, an artist or troupe of some kind will make their way to our little slice of the world. Normally its up-and-coming country music stars, trying to get a little name recognition before hitting the mainstream. Other times it’s a smattering of sports figures or comics who give some of their time to see the troops.

Then there are the porn shows.

“Porn?!?!?” some might be asking. Well, I suppose it is a bit strong. Let’s say a “dance team.” Big-chested buxom blonds in mini skirts and thigh-highs, pole dancing–I mean, performing a routine in front of hundreds of gaping, drooling, sex crazed men–I mean, attendees.

Now lets not fire in to the “you must be gay” rhetoric just yet. Women are wonderful, there’s no denying that. And life sans beauty can have a pronounced effect on the psyche of an American male, for sure. Especially when coupled with all of the pressures and uncertainties of combat.

Granted.

Still, I have a bit of a problem with shows like this that prey upon the already sexually tense situations here in theater.

Can we pigeonhole women into the sexual-object stereotype any further with shows like this? Is standing in a crowd of drooling men, gawking at a woman as she squeezes her breasts the sort of thing I want the military to pay for?

“There were women there,” said our equal opportunity sergeant–incidentally, one of the most chauvinist, indiscreet men I’ve ever known.

“Oh please,” said the female finance specialist who works in our office in the mornings. “They went because it was a show, not because they wanted to see it.”

“There was dancing. It was more than just a chance to see ’em.”

“Oh yeah, dancing. That’s what I want to see, bikini-clad women dancing.”

“Oh come on! You know you wanted to go.”

“No I didn’t. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

“Oh please! You can’t expect the military to bring in shows for women, it’s just not cost effective.”

Priceless.

Back in November, Monster Garage approached my unit with the offer to film the final episode of the series at one of our motor pools. They wanted to highlight the work of soldier mechanics and welders by showing their talents on the show and bolstering the image of the Army. Another unit eventually picked up on the offer, but my command rejected it because it “didn’t send the right kind of message to the public.”

What and these types of shows do?

Ladies, you’re beautiful and I love you, but you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to shake your “thang” so that I’ll appreciate you. I just hope the pay was good enough to put up with all the groping, leering and more-than-being-friendly smiles.

###

The Camp-Time Continuum

On the FOB there exists another world.

Apparently there are some sort of dimension-altering properties in the spools of wire and piles of bricks that make up our camp walls.

Outside, Iraq rages on with kidnappings, scores of gunmen ravaging the neighborhoods, citizens sweltering without electricity or purified water in the summer heat, and constant bombings.

But inside—well, inside things are different.

I watched a news clip that aired a few nights ago from one of the nightly networks back in the states. It painted a pretty grim picture of the situation out there. Iraq was on the verge of civil war. Sectarian violence was engulfing whole neighborhoods. Colleges were being bombed. People were being drug from their shops, cars, and homes; having holes drilled in them with power tools; and shot dead in the street.

And life “inside the wire”?

I was at the post exchange today, waiting in line for Burger King. There was a soldier in front of me.

“I just want three Cokes,” he said to the Indian cashier. The staff promptly handed him three chilled cans of Coke from behind the counter.

“And I’ll need some cups with ice,” he went on.

“Sorry sir, no ice here,” the man managed through a heavy accent.

“No ice! What the f*** is this?! You don’t have any f***** ice?! This is bullsh**!”

The cashier only could apologize further and wait for the American to storm off, back to his table in the outdoor promenade and hope his steaming didn’t bring him back.

I wanted to remind the guy he was in Iraq, eating Burger King, had an air conditioned trailer to sleep in, TV, and even the Internet just down the street.

Meanwhile, just a couple of countries away, Israel and Lebanon were having it out: rocket attacks, bombings, air strikes, blockades and threats of further escalation. It was the worst in years and was poised to place another region in the grips of destruction and death.

On Taji? Well, we started griping that they were starting to replace the roof to our dining facility. We’d have to stagger our eating times since only half of the seating area inside would be available for the next week or so. People would have to go a little earlier or later to spread out the traffic.

I was at the gym and I started talking to a scout—reconnaissance troops who fulfill a lot of “on the road” jobs nowadays. He looked worn out, I mean really beat down.

Turns out he goes out everyday. Every day. Not just here and there like me, and not as in…well, never, like most of my unit. This guy was out there, dealing with the gunfights and road-side bombs in the searing heat, whether he ever felt like it or not.

And the camp life? It continues. There’s something that changes people who stay on camp the whole deployment.

People ask how we can work through the reality of the war. Truth is I don’t think most soldiers see much of the reality. We spend so much of our time holed up in our little fortress—our little pocket of America, that we hardly know or care what we’re participating in.

That’s why every time someone gives a rallying speech about how we’re authoring history, spreading democracy or freedom, or how we all took part in “the war,” I just roll my eyes.

###

some months longer than others

I remember something like day 10 at Taji, back in October…

We had spent a few weeks in Kuwait, attending classes, briefings and dabbling in rumors about the war “up north.”

Our command spread a few of them around as well, the sort that parents scare their children with to keep them behaved. For us they usually went along the lines of, “Pay attention! They’re using “X” and “Y” up there. If you don’t remember what this class is teaching you, you could cause your friend to die.”

Which is pretty severe, granted. But they use that line for everything from blousing your boots to Arabic cultural greetings, so after a while, you tune it out and it’s not so bad.

All that to say that those weeks, coupled with the transit days of getting to Taji from Kuwait–the endless series of moves, temporary housing, briefings, air lifts, and 0200 wake ups…took what seemed like months.

So on day 10, as I was at the camp exchange, waiting for the shuttle to take be south to headquarters, I watched the sun set–one of my first Iraqi dust sunsets, and wondered how in the hell I was going to make it 10 months, let alone another 10 days.

“Boy it’s sure good to see that patch,” one of the bus stop patrons piped my way. Unit patches came in waves as units…well, showed up. Seeing a “new” patch around meant someone was coming in, and that someone was leaving for home.

“Yeah, we just got here a few days ago,” I said, noticing his patch and not recognizing it. Patches like mine from a major command were easily recognizable. There were a myriad of other Reserve and National Guard unit patches that I had never seen. His could have been one of those.

“Seeing you means I’ll be seeing less of me around here,” he went on, looking to the sun, shifting into a recollecting sort of mood, like a grandfather telling a childhood story. “It’s not so bad, really, but I’ll be glad to get going.”

It was cool, much cooler than Kuwait, which managed to hold on to its 100-plus temperatures well into traditional autumn. Taji then was a more welcoming host.

Now we’re 10-months plus into our own ration of war. “Seems like yesterday” and all that crap. Soon it’ll be time for me to head down to the bus stop and wait for some new joker with a new patch to pass along the hows and wherefores of the camp.

God’s been good to make me numb enough not to remember the past year like I did the first few weeks. Whew! I would have gone bonkers.

People are starting to get restless. Tempers are flaring as troops realize they don’t have to be nice to each other for much longer. Go ahead and burn the bridges! A few more weeks and we’re out! Woohoo!

I’ll celebrate with them as long as I can, keeping in mind the upcoming year. Some cats are planning barbecues and all that romp for when we land back in the states. “You’re soooo coming,” our equal opportunity rep said to me yesterday. “We need to get you drunk so you can make us laugh.”

“Yeah, don’t plan on going anywhere. We’re going to get you f***ed up!” an admin sergeant added.

While the idea of vomiting and being hung over for my time back in the states is tempting, I think I’ll probably bow out of a couple of the get togethers for a little “me” time. After all, there’s a lot of getting ready for Iraq still to come when I hit the states.

Maybe someone will see me at the Taji exchange around October of this year with my new patch, and go on about how the camp works and where things are.

That’ll be a trip.

###

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