Friday, January 23, 2004
Direct from Iraq
Early this month Mike had a two-week leave. When the family got together in Lake George, New York, he looked fit and energetic in spite of thirty-six hours of travel, and was full of stories about his time in the desert.
130 degrees is not that bad
In late April, Mike arrived at the former Iraqi Balad Southeast Airfield as part of an advance team to set up kitchen, laundry and other facilities for what was to be the Quartermaster Battalion's Headquarters Headquarters (the headquarters of several headquarters) Unit. The fort is currently named Anaconda after going through a stint as Fort Garter, a designation apparently not fierce enough even for a quartermaster unit. The airfield had been abandoned after the first Gulf War when the Iraqi Air Force was disbanded. In the ensuing fourteen years, the base had badly deteriorated; windows were blown out and there was no water, electricity, or any working facilities.
During the first weeks, the temperature was routinely 130 degrees in the daytime, hitting a high one day of 156. The Americans wondered how the Iraqis could work in such heat, but soon, "One hundred thirty degrees is not that bad, you really do get used to it." It was a month before showers, laundry, and toilets were running. In the meantime, pails were used for bathing, washing, and as makeshift latrines.
All's quiet, for a month or two
With fewer than 1,000 soldiers on site (the fort currently has 15,000), a perimeter could not be established and guarded, although it was hoped tanks would provide safety. The war was still being fought in Baghdad, but there was no local insurgency other than a few pot shots taken at vehicles. The only real fighting was between Iraqis vying for control of the region.
On July 3 the fort was hit for the first time with mortars and rockets, and these attacks continued every night for two to three months. After that the focus shifted to attacking convoys with explosives. Mike, whose recent job has been guarding convoys delivering supplies to Tikrit, has been hit on several occasions. So far, no one in his battalion has been killed, although there have been injuries
An area frozen in time
Although Balad is in an area populated by Sunnis of the same religion as Saddam Hussein, Mike's impression is of an area time and politics have passed by. "You see women on donkeys dressed in traditional clothes who could be out of the Bible." Situated in the Tigris River valley, this rural farming town retains scars from the first Gulf War. Many bombed buildings were never repaired, and tanks destroyed in that war are still sitting by the side of the road "It looks like the town froze fourteen years ago."
Mike describes taking a truck to pick up people to work on the base. "It is sad because the pay is a dollar a day with food and water and you have to throw the people off because so many want to come." He adds, "We usually give them extra stuff and trade with them so they get more than just a dollar." One ragged hiree hadn't worked in three years due to a fallout with the local political powers. Noticing the man was barefoot, Mike secured a pair of new shoes, only to find the man still working barefoot — the shoes were too good to wear (the problem was solved with a pair of cast-offs).
Most people friendly
When asked if there is local resentment, Mike responds, "There must be since there are people trying to kill us." But he finds, "Most people are fairly friendly." He says soldiers have learned to expect a different reception depending on the price of the car being driven. "The cheapest cars are full of people waving and kids smiling and shouting. It's the Mercedes (presumably driven by former Baath party members) that zoom on by." On the day Saddam Hussein was captured, the locals celebrated in the streets, and Mike found himself unexpectedly enveloped in hugs. He says locals "are amazingly comfortable having M16s pointed at them" and seem to have no fear about approaching armed Americans, sometimes just to say hello.
English is widely spoken. Any Iraqi who has been to university is fluent, and the poor "know enough, way more than we know 'Iraqi'" as the locals (who are nationalistic), prefer you call Arabic. Mike was surprised to find the Iraqis more westernized than Kuwaitis and other Third-World nationals. "Everyone has a relative in Chicago," and it's common to see Nike, Tommy Hilfinger, or LA Lakers logos on very old clothing bought before sanctions were enacted.
Mike tells a story that shows even the uneducated are familiar with American culture. A few weeks ago, he was in a truck that was narrowly missed by a HumVee driven by Arnold Schwartzenegger, who was in Iraq to visit the troops. Upon telling his driver, a local farmer, who it was that had almost sideswiped them, the driver responded, "like Stallone or Van Dam?" and then joked, "Today Arnold, maybe next week J Lo."
The first question any Iraqi will ask is "what is your religion?" (Mike has a Jewish coworker who has gone to great pains to duck that question). The Army has ensured a loyal cadre by importing Catholic Iraqis from Baghdad. "The Christians are very happy we're here," as they have historically been persecuted. Many local Sunnis are also employed, but no Shiites, who live in other areas.
Morale a problem?
Regarding morale, Mike says, "It's not as bad as people [in the U.S.] think. We're committed to doing our jobs." The weapons of mass destruction controversy is "incidental to us," he says. "You see that people lived horribly and in fear (under Hussein). It's got to be better now."
Among reservists, Mike says most "don't question why we're there, but they do question why they're there." Most have jobs and families so the adjustment is difficult. Mike's job with the State of New York is probably safe, but his commanding officer, who runs a string of coffee shops, is struggling to stay in business as he tries to manage his small enterprise from 15,000 miles away.
Families suffer the most
The most difficult aspect for Mike has been the burden on his family, especially his wife Jody, who he admits "has a tougher job than I do." They were given no time to prepare — Mike was told on a Thursday to report to Fort Drum the following Monday, from which he was deployed. Her own job as a nurse went by the boards as she had no weekend daycare and was overwhelmed with the work of managing their four energetic kids aged eight months, three, seven, and nine. "This is by far the hardest thing we've ever had to face," said Jody. "I hope when Mike gets back we don't have to go through anything like that again for a long, long time."
Jody has made friends with one wife from Mike's unit, but knows of no other mother nearby who is in her situation. Mike explains that a regular-army-active-duty wife would be living on a fort with many neighbors who are in the same boat. "There's a lot more bonding and helping each other out." Reserve families tend not to be very involved with each other as it's only a two day a month commitment, and family support services are almost non-existent.
The unending rotation
With no end date to their deployment, the reservists are unable to plan or look forward to going home. Originally Mike's unit was on a 170-day rotation; they have now passed the 300-day mark. Along the way they have been disappointed multiple times as end dates have been pushed off, and they have learned to ignore any postings or rumors regarding when they will be leaving.
This is particularly grating as commitments to regular Army and Air Force troops are honored. On Mike's base, Air Force troops are on a ninety-day rotation. "That hurts morale when we see guys leaving and we remember when they showed up." In addition, the "stop loss" policy, which keeps needed reservists deployed even when their commitments are up, and which does not apply to active duty troops, is a sore point. "The 'Army of One' is baloney," says Mike.
The priority given active duty troops in everything from rotations to equipment issue to pay seems unfair to reservists, especially as the risks and responsibility are the same. Speaking of his job guarding convoys, Mike says, "Had you told me before we came that a quartermaster reserve unit would be doing this, I would have thought you were crazy. You've got to do what you've got to do, but there's alot of feeling 'this isn't what I signed up for.'" He adds, "I'm in charge of guys who are active duty. Here in Iraq I am active duty."
Send tickets home
Regarding what the folks at home can be doing, Mike notes that letters and news (of anything but the war) are always welcome, as well as books, movies, or anything to break the monotony. "It's like the movie Groundhog Day — you just live the same day over and over." Since they're a supply unit, the only thing they really lack, according to Mike is "plane tickets home."
Mike's leave was bittersweet. "It was great to see everyone, but it's painful to think about going back." One of the best surprises was the greeting he received at the airport, especially from his youngest, Malachy, now 20 months old, who immediately called "da da" and reached for him. Says Mike, "How weird is it that he remembers who I am?" (Malachy was eight months old the last time he saw his dad).
But Mike left with a glimmer of hope his deployment may someday soon come to a close. Just before he returned to Iraq on January 16, he was told the process was beginning to transfer his unit's duties to another reserve unit. "I hate to get my hopes up again, but maybe this'll finally be it."
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito