Wednesday, December 23, 2009

R&R travels and the Burj Skyscraper of Dubai

My first year as a private contractor has come to a close, bringing with it the opportunity to go home for a couple of weeks. I spent November 23-December 10 at home, and had a great time, though it flew by. What did not fly by, however, were the trips to and from Iraq and home. Allow me to describe my fun trip home........
On November 19th, I boarded a Blackhawk helicopter that was to take me from Basra to Tallil Air Base, outside of Nasiriyah, Iraq; which, it did. Eventually. What should have been a 40-minute trip wound up being over 5 hours of hell. We stopped at 4 different bases up and down the Tigris River, all-the-while I'm stuck between 2 fat soldiers (is there another kind?) with their gear digging into my sides and my knees tucked up against my chest, to accommodate all the luggage that was stacked at our feet. My knees ached, my sides stung from whatever was piercing me (M-16 magazines, I believe), and the worst part was that I had no idea that we were stopping anywhere besides Tallil. So, every time we'd stop, a relief would wash over me....only to quickly turn to anger and a loud, internal "WTF ARE WE DOING??!!" when I'd realize it was another remote firebase that we had landed at to exchange more soldiers. Oh, I almost forgot.....the doors on the Blackhawk were wide open the entire ride, so the 40-degree air at 100 miles-per-hour felt great, whipping at my face for 5 hours.
When we finally arrived at Tallil, I grabbed my bags and made my way to billeting to get a cot in a transient tent, until I was to fly to Baghdad.
Three days later, I boarded a charter jet from Tallil to Baghdad. Again, what should have been a 40-minute jet ride turned into a 4 -hour ride-from-hell, as we stopped at Al Asad and Ballad.....again, with no one actually informing me that we'd be stopping off anywhere besides Baghdad. What made this ride so much fun, besides the duration and lack of any clue as to what was going on, was the fact that someone handed me a small cooler before I boarded the plane, for me to transport to a medic in Baghdad. "Sure, no problem". A liver, stool sample, H1N1 vaccines, I had no idea what was inside.....but when the the 40-minute ride turned into 3 hours, and the ice inside said cooler began to melt and drench the carry on bags of everyone within 3 rows of me, I instantly became the least popular traveler on that jet.
So, I'm finally in Baghdad.....great, right? Wrong. My former boss from when I worked in Tallil, a 60-year-old, prior army officer who LOVES me because I was a Marine, happened to be going on his R&R at the same time. He thought that this was just a fine coincidence, because we have just so much in common. In fact, he decided that we should become travel buddies, and never leave each other's sides until we got to Atlanta. Let it be known- when I travel, I like to be alone and quiet, and observe everyone else in the airports....I'm a people-watcher. I don't like to talk, just for the sake of talking. And I don't like it when old men put their hand on my shoulder or knee to emphasize their talking points, or for any other reason, for that matter. Enough said.
In the Baghdad airport, the plane taking us to Dubai was 7 hours late....which had consequences that made my day even worse. First, I was forced to sit and listen to the old boss talk. And talk. And touch my knee. And talk. Secondly, this thwarted any plans I had of site seeing in Dubai, as by the time I arrived, it was already dark and my flight home was that night.
Ok, so now we're on the flight to Dubai.....any chance of a peaceful ride was already ruined due to my new "best buddy" making sure that we sat together. Of course, I somehow again landed in the middle of a lard sandwhich, as my old boss is not thin and the old American Indian man to my right had flesh that was spilling over into my personal space. That flight lasted 3 hours. Or 3 days. It felt the same.
Now, I'm in Dubai. I tried to skate off by myself, but my stalker-boss would not allow that.....keep in mind that I was doing everything I could to appease him and not hurt his feelings, so I'd just smile and nod and go along with his ideas of fellowship while traveling. His next great idea was that he'd get us a hotel room so we could shower before our flight home. Yeah, that sounds fun....and so does not getting a hotel room, and leaving me the hell alone. But, since the government was already paying for the room, I obliged. I also understood that this old man was thrilled to be traveling with me, after all, I am a cool guy, and a former Marine, and he enjoyed telling me his Vietnam War stories. As much as I wanted to be left alone, I didn't want to be a jerk, either....and I knew I'd be home soon.
I finally lost him at the Dubai airport. However....the Dubai airport brought its own little surprise. After going through passport control and all that fun stuff, I had about 2 hours to kill. At one point, I needed to use the, I did. Upon walking into said restroom, my eyes immediately met a site I will never forget, but wish I could- a middle-aged Arab man, dressed in a traditional, long white gown, called a Thobe. He was standing, awkwardly balancing himself, with one foot on the ground and the other actually inside the sink, washing it with soap and water. "Hm, that's weird." I thought to myself. But then, I saw something else resting on the counter. Yep. And, only because I know someone will email me and ask what exactly was resting on the counter, it was his genitalia. All of it. How I didn't throw up in my mouth, I don't know. But from now on, I'll bring hand sanitizer.
My stay at home was plagued by a head cold that didn't want to let up, but otherwise I had a great time. I'll be home for my sister's wedding, on March 6. Perhaps for good; I haven't decided yet.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Same same? No thanks, pal.

I felt like a kid on Christmas morning when I saw this Iraqi special forces shooting target, earlier this week. Apparently, the stereotypical, Iraqi criminal/terrorist sports a mullet haircut and tank top tucked into 90's-era Zubaz sweatpants. Hopefully, these targets will condition Iraqi soldiers to engage anything with a mullet, as growing one is never acceptable. (I recommend clicking on & enlarging the photo to fully appreciate the mulletude of the man on the target)
In August, the US government tightened access to certain internet sites, including most blog sites. I could read my blog, but no longer login to post new ones. Hence, the hiatus. This is also why, at the end of my last post, there is so much praise for my brother. I wrote the entry and emailed it to him to post. He added a bit to what I sent him.
A few of us are now paying some Iraqi interpreters a monthly fee for private internet in our rooms, which allows us unrestricted access to the web.
The month of August brought the same, hot weather, and many more rocket attacks. Thankfully, we haven't had any casualties since July.
September had slightly cooler temperatures, only a few rocket attacks, and I was moved from my position as labor foreman to work as an operations specialist, in our operations office. I now coordinate work between the special forces and our tradesmen. I work behind a desk and in front of a computer, and therefore only get to interact with Iraqis a few times a week. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as one of my last encounters involved a young Iraqi man offering me some good old fashioned SAME SAME. "Same Same" is how an Iraqi, in his broken English, refers to a same-sex encounter....and how he propositions said encounter. Here's how it went:
(Me, supervising a group of 5 Iraqis building/welding a chain-link fence on our camp)
Iraqi- "Mista, you married?"
Me- "Nope. Girlfriend. You married?"
Iraqi- "Yes! Me marry, 5 years! 3 baby!"
Me- "Wow, good for you. That's impressive."
....30 seconds of silence......
Iraqi- "Yes, me very good, jiggy jiggy!"
Me- "I'm sorry, did you just say 'jiggy jiggy?" Followed by a fit of laughter, having never heard this term before.
Iraqi- "Yes! Jiggy jiggy! You like jiggy jiggy?
Me- No reply due to laughing fit.
Iraqi- "Oh, you like! You want jiggy jiggy? "
Me- "From you? No thanks, pal." Still laughing.
Iraqi- "Same same. You, very beautiful! You, me, same same."
Me- "Yeah, I appreciate the offer, but no thanks."
That was the gist of it, anyway. As most Marines and soldiers who have interacted with Iraqi men know, these propositions occur frequently. While at Abu Ghraib, we were offered "same same" and "feeky feeky" almost daily. Meanwhile, militias publicly lynch gay men to save face with their fellow Muslims....or superglue their bottoms and force-feed laxatives until they die....both of these are not uncommon in Iraq. A bit hypocritical, but whatever floats their boat.
In the next couple of days, I'm hitching a ride on an Army Blackhawk to head to Nasiriyah. From there I go to Baghdad to get my passport stamped, and then hop on an old, "how-is-this-thing-able-to-fly-God-if-you-spare-me-I-will-become-a-monk" Iraqi Airways jet to Dubai, and from Dubai to the States. It will be nice to be home for Thanksgiving, this year.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I'd like to thank my mother for sending me so much beef jerky and pistachios. The inconsiderate, Iranian-backed militia in Basra had the audacity to attack us with rockets for about 3 hours tonight, right in the middle of our dinner hours. This kept us holed up in bunkers and unable to get to the chow hall for the evening meal. Luckily, I had enough "pogey bait" in my bug-out bag, which I brought to the bunker, to keep my coworkers and I satisfied until the attack ended. Thanks mom.

At this point, it should be clear that I am not a racist. I am not so shallow as to judge a person by their race or ethnicity; lifestyle choices and eating habits, perhaps, but not something that is out of one’s control. I have always gone out of my way to help anyone in need here, regardless of their country-of-origin. That being said, I often find it difficult to look at the diverse people I work with and not picture them as their stereotype. Let me explain- there is a gentleman from Fiji here. He’s a very nice guy and works extremely hard. However, I cannot look at him without visualizing him clad in a leaf or loin cloth, clutching a spear, and dancing around a fire on a beach with a bone through his nose. I know, you can’t believe I actually wrote that. Well, as I’ve said before, this blog is about my daily observations, and I’m just keeping it true-to-form. Actually, I really have no idea if native Fijians even do what I envision. Perhaps they stick to apples and over-priced bottled water.

When I see the guys from Nepal, as in the gentleman on the left in the picture, I picture the same thing every time: his small frame hunched over, loaded down with 200lbs of the climbing gear of some wealthy, English aristocrat, headed for a Mt Everest base camp; a Sherpa.

Most of the guys from India dress and behave just like you and me- blue jeans, t-shirt, etc. Once in a while, though, you get someone such as the guy on the right in the photo. The traditional Hindi garb gives me images of him sitting, Indian style (obviously), around a woven basket, charming a Cobra with a flute (he has the flute, not the cobra). The other image conjured up by the Indian’s native outfit is that of one of the evil priests in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I must say, also, that the Indians are probably the hardest and smartest workers I have ever seen, and it is my pleasure to work alongside them.

Now, in my defense, many of these thoughts were generated by hearing the guys laugh about their stereotypes. The Kenyans often joke about bringing me back a lion from their next visit home. Simon has gone into great detail, attempting to convince me that young, Kenyan men still hunt lions as a rite of passage into manhood. So, they do give my mental pictures a bit of ammunition.

Finally, I'd like to thank my brother Steve for being the greatest human being ever to exist. Of all time, EVER. I don't know how you do it, Steve, but you do it well, let me tell you. Keep it up! Someone's gotta be the man, right? We're all glad it's you!!!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mortars Are For Cowards

I typically don't write about the daily mortar and rocket attacks because I don't want to worry my friends and family back home.  I'll make an exception for this post. We received the worst attack I have seen since 2004, when I was here as a Marine. I returned from the gym at about 9pm. At 915, I had just sat down and began checking emails, when I heard that distinctive, deep percussion "thmp!" in the distance; it is a sound that anyone whom has spent significant time in a war zone will be able to instantly identify- a mortar exiting its tube. This ominous sound alerts you to the fact that impact is imminent and only seconds away. All which time allowed me to do was drop to the floor and lie as flat as possible, as indirect fire blasts throw shrapnel up and out, in a mushroom shape. Sure enough, multiple rounds detonated in my camp. Rocks and dirt flew everywhere  I would give exact proximity to my office, but I would prefer to avoid giving those cowards any extra useful information (the instant, 24-hour-news-feeds gives them enough) After the first 10 hits, I made my way to the reinforced bunker, just in time to hear the volleys of more mortars being launched. This is as much as I will write, as I don't want to divulge any further details on this public blog. This article provides more details....
My time in Basra has been filled with nightly rocket attacks. At times, it's reminded me of Abu Ghraib prison, where we were mortared and rocketed all day, every day. Several soldiers here, some of whom were my friends, have been killed. I have survived hundreds of mortars and rockets in my time in Iraq, and I hate them just as much now as I did at Abu Ghraib.   I detest the feeling of extreme vulnerability they fill you with once you hear them leave their tubes, not knowing where they will land, but that they are obviously close enough for you to hear their fins cutting the air.
The word is that the "bad guys" (insurgents, Al Qaeda-in-Iraq, etc) are trying to ramp up attacks across Iraq in an effort to undermine the Iraqi Army, whom are now taking over security as the US troops withdraw.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Flak Jackets and Burns

This picture is of me after a recent rocket attack. When donning the vest, I'm reminded of the movie Dumb & Dumber, when Harry asks the detective, "What if he shot me in the face?" The answer I'd get, if I asked this question, would be the same as in the film: "Well, Mr Petersen, that was a risk we were willing to take." The vests are a bit of a joke, though I guess they're better than flak jacket in the Marines actually surrounded and somewhat protected my torso and neck, unlike these.
Yesterday, one of my Iraqi subcontractors, Abass, showed up to work with a rather prominent limp, which he was, rather unsuccessfully, trying to hide. He appeared to be in so much pain that he was having trouble performing event the most routine of his duties, so I asked him why he was limping. He hesitated, then removed his boot. He had on a partially white sock, and what I saw startled me. The sock, across his toes and front portion of the top of his foot, was discolored with an obvious mixture of blood and puss. I had him remove his sock, and my first thought was that it was the biggest blister I had ever seen. The wound completely covered 3 toes and continued to about an inch past the toes on the top of his foot. I've seen many blisters on the tops of feet in the Marines, and judging by the raw flesh exposed, mixed with the bloody puss, this was my assumption. Knowing the dangers of infection, and the fact that he could barely walk, I walked to my hooch and got my first aid kit. Upon returning with my supplies, I knelt down to begin cleaning his foot.....I should add a note here- it was obvious to me that he had no idea how to properly clean and treat this wound, hence, I was willing to help him out; besides, I had rubber gloves, so I didnt mind. As I was kneeling down in front of him, I was able to study his wound more carefully, and I realized that this indeed was not a giant blister, it was 3rd degree burn. When I inquired as to how he was burned, he either refused to answer or didn't understand how to explain it. At this point, I decided to, once again, break the ridiculous rules set in place by the powers-that-be, and go seek the advice of our on-site medic. The medic, being of sound mind and not easily persuaded by the contemptible rules which prevent us from helping out anyone but Americans who may be in need, insisted that if I kept it between he and I, he would love to go out to the work site and render aid to Abass. The doc (our nickname for any medic) too, was a bit surprised at the extent of the burn. It was relatively deep and oozing a myriad of colors that have never been oozed before, with noticeable infection setting in. But alas, he managed to clean it up, applied the appropriate creams and bandages, and a even offered up a few Motrin for the pain. Being that my arabic is not extensive enough to include medical terminology nor wound-tending instructions, I then walked to the office, logged into Google Translator and printed out instructions, in arabic script, for him to continue care. Yes, my instructions included the importance of immediately getting to a hospital, should the infection get any worse. After all the care was said & done, Abass begged me to not email his boss, or he'd be fired. This, of course, was conveyed via certain words, phrases, and gestures, as he doesn't speak much English. I assured him that it would remain between us. I must say: that I need to sneak around and guard the fact that I'm helping someone in obvious need, infuriates me. There's so much politically correct BS and fear of lawsuits, that I need to walk on eggshells just to give a guy some bandaids? If you're wondering, yes, I could easily be fired for this "offense", just as I could have been terminated for taking the Indians to the Romanian dentist. Where is the logic? Common senes? Where is the idea of basic, human decency? I guess that in contracts of this magnitude, all of that is lost.
Today, however, Abass returned to work and was doing much better. He had applied the creams and bandages and was not limping so profoundly. We got to talking, and it turned out that he was stationed in Fallujah as an Iraqi soldier at the same time that I was at Abu Ghraib prison with the Marines. He was there until 2007, which means he served alongside my brother, who was in Fallujah as a Marine from 2006-07. It's a small world....a very small, hot world.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Dreadful Heat & Sesame Street

I saw this little guy while convoying from Nasiriyah to Basra. I have no idea what kind of lizard this 2 1/2'-long one was.

I'm still enjoying my time in Iraq, though at times the days & weeks seem to drag by. The daytime temperatures are consistently in the 120's, and this is in the shade. In direct sunlight, the mid-130's. At night, the temperatures rarely drop below 100. However, as cliche as it is, it is a dry heat, and this does make a difference. Not a huge difference, but a noticeable one. I would posit that 120's in Iraq, with minimal humidity, is roughly equal to 100-degree weather in St Louis, with 90+% humidity. Here, sweating doesn't do much to help your body regulate itself, because the wind blows like a hot hair dryer, evaporating your sweat before it has a chance to cool you home, with 90% or more humidity, the sweat doesn't get a chance to evaporate, thus, not cooling you off. There's actually a fine balance between outside temperatures/wind/humidity and your sweat and your body's ability to utilize these factors to cool itself off. This is one reason that traditionally, Arabs wear long, loose-fitting clothing: so that the hot wind doesn't evaporate their sweat before it has a chance to work.
I don't mind the heat as long as I have ample water to drink. On average, I drink about 3 gallons a day. This is all I can do to prevent dehydration. In fact, I actually prefer the intense heat to cooler weather, such as anything below 70's. In the Marines, when I would proclaim my hatred of the cold (anything below 70), I would often hear, "just wait until we get to Iraq and it's 120!". Well, it's over 120 and I still prefer this to the cold. We don't have air conditioning, or at least none that we are allowed to use due to our generators lacking the capacity to handle them, which makes being indoors a bit uncomfortable. The intense heat affects the amount of food I eat, as my appetite is virtually non-existant during the day. I force myself to eat a bowl of Special K cereal, with a banana, for lunch.
This morning, I almost stepped on a snake, which I believe was a desert horned viper. I tried to go back to get a picture, but could not find it when I returned. Encounters with venomous snakes, here in Iraq, have increased exponentially in the last several weeks. After researching this online, I found this interesting yet very alarming article. Perhaps it's true that water is the next "oil"’s often been said that the next resource wars will be fought not over oil but over water. In 2007 an 18-month study of Sudan by the UN concluded that the conflict in Darfur had its roots in water shortages. According to the report, disappearing pasture and evaporating water holes—rainfall is down 30 percent over 40 years in some parts of the Sahel—had sparked dispute between herders and farmers and threatened to trigger new wars across Africa. I hope Turkey cooperates, soon.
There is a gecko that lives in the bathroom in my hooch. I actually find him rather interesting and have allowed it to reside there for the past 2 weeks. We have a bit of an arrangement- he maintains the bug population in my hooch to a minimum, and I allow him to drink from my toilet and sleep in the corner, behind my toilet brush.
I had an interesting conversation with an Iraq soldier this morning......for some reason, Iraqis are always curious as to whether or not I'm married. When I answer in the negative, they look surprised......"You no married?! You- too much beautiful, you be married!" I believe this means that they think I'm a good-looking guy and I should be married.....I guess it's a cultural thing. This morning's conversation began like this, but this time he then followed with inquiring if I had a girlfriend. I told him "yes, 3 years......are you married?" He replied, "Yes, 2." I immediately thought he was saying that he had been married for 2 years. He then said, "One wife, baby 2 years, one wife, baby 5 months." I then realized that he was telling me that he had two wives, not that he had been married for 2 years. Good for him! I guess when you got it, you got it. Curiously, he strongly resembled the Count, from Sesame Street. I wanted him to say, "One! Two Wives, HA HA HA!" but I had no idea how to convey my wishes. "Waha! Neon....."
My Bosian friends are devastated by the death of Michael Jackson. Apparently he was still "cool" in developing parts of Eastern Europe. I also just caught one of them singing, "It's Raining Men", which says a lot. I'm not joking.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Swine Flu is over-hyped

You can click on these pictures to enlarge

It's been rather difficult to update this blog due to the lack of internet availability at my location in Basra. There is only one computer, which is to be used for work purposes; therefore it's difficult when sharing said computer with 5 other employees, to stay on long enough to write an update. However, I will soon have internet wired into my trailer. So, for now, I will condense a month and a half's worth of activity in this post.
I thoroughly enjoy working in Basra. Being that I work in a small, special forces camp, one must be placed on a special list in order to even enter our camp. This serves me well in that it eliminates unwanted guests coming by, such as upper management and others who seek only to find petty faults in others in efforts to boost their own careers. Picture Bill Lumbergh from Office Space.....the contractor I work for has a lot of these characters, so it's nice to see an army specialist at our front gate turn away one of them, simply because they're not on "the list". It actually happens quite frequently, and I love it.
We are able to do our jobs and avoid, for the most part, the trivial BS that seems to pollute the larger bases. My tasks consist of anything that the special forces need help with....special forces being Navy Seals, a few Air Force commandos, and Army SF's. It's like day and night compared to having to work for National Guard (nasty guard) soldiers, as I was while in Tallil. Some days I work with the electricians, grounding and bonding the various buildings, and other days I work with the carpenters (the tradesmen, not the 1970's singing duo). Not only is the atmosphere more relaxed, I also get to learn some new skills.
After six months of working in Iraq, I was finally able to take a vacation. I met my brother and Elizabeth in Mexico, and had a great time. I went snorkeling in the 2nd largest reef system in the world, toured the ancient Mayan Ruins, rappelled into a cenote and snorkeled inside (there were 1,000-year-old skeletons at the bottom, which you could see with a diving mask), rode a scooter around Cozumel, ate lobster and shrimp that had been caught locally that morning, relaxed on the beach, ziplined over an alligator-infested lake, got a great tan, didn't drink alcohol once, racked up 16,000 frequent flyer miles, and avoided Swine Flu. And to pre-empt anyone who may want to ask me, again, no, I was not worried about catching Swine Flu.....millions of people catch influenza each year, and there have only been 2500 confirmed SF cases, worldwide.
Now, I am sitting in Kuwait for the 3rd consecutive day.....Delta somehow lost my luggage, and I only got it back a few hours ago. It's very difficult to communicate lost luggage when you're dealing with 3 different languages.....English (me), Arabic (Kuwaitis), and Spanish (Cancun airport). But luckily, it only took 3 days. Now, in a few short hours, I will fly up to Baghdad to get my passport stamped, fly down to Tallil, and then take an armored SUV back down to Basra. I'm looking forward to that, so I can see the countryside.
I shall write more soon.

Addendum: In late January, 2010, I caught the H1N1 Swine Flu, and wow. It's not exaggerated. I couldn't recall being that miserable in my entire life. The virus spread throughout Camp Basra and my diagnosis was confirmed with a blood test. I was put on isolation for a week. Being sick isn't fun. Being sick in an austere place, a war zone, is less fun.