Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The best thing about Iraq

So I'm driving along Route 33W near Charlottesville on my way to Shenandoah National Forest. As soon as I start gaining altitude, the sky becomes curiously overcast and I can see the wind is picking up by the minute.
Skyline Drive exit. I roll up to the ranger toll booth in the new Mustang I rented for the next 20 days. A quick stop in the mountains as I head out to visit friends and family all points beyond. A blast of winter air hits my face as I drop the window to pay the entrance fee.

"Yeah, reading 42 degrees right now. She's dropping fast. Shoot, it was so warm yesterday, too."

Crap. It was 89 degrees in Norfolk when I left. "Great! Hey, I'm meeting a lot of people up here tonight. There's supposed to be this huge concert at Big Meadows Campground, and everyone I've talked to is coming out. Have you seen them yet?"

Ranger looking at me with her mouth open and brow furrowed: "Um, what?"

"Yeah, huge rock concert at the campground. Supposed to be a couple' hundred showing up. You didn't hear about it?"


"I have an extra ticket if you want to go. Is this going to be a problem?" I ask ever so innocently.

"Well, yes! We can't have that up here. Who issued the permit for this? This is a National Forest!!!"

I can't stand it any more, and give up the joke lest I be accused of having fun at someone else's expense. I get a complimentary glare along with my Skyline pass. She needs more humor in her life. . . not aware of this fact yet.

Register, find the camp spot, and set up the tent. Find long sleeve t-shirt, jacket, and the hat I just so happen to bring along. I haven't mentioned this yet, but 42 degrees is quite the change from where I came from. I'll get to that in a minute.

George pulls up in his custom conversion van. Complete with bed. Obviously when he mentioned camping in the mountains to me as I was traveling back from Iraq, we each had our separate ideas of what constitutes "camping". His version is looking so much more appealing than mine right now.
Procure the firewood, make some coffee, and fire up the grill. As I start jumping up and down to maintain body temperature, George and I are tag-teaming both the grill and the fire simultaneously as dusk fades quickly to night.
After some top sirloin and hamburgers, the campfire is roaring along quite nicely. Which is a good thing when your current perspective of cool mountain air goes something along the lines of "Oh God, I'm going to lose an appendage to frostbite before morning". I forgot my flask of Irish whiskey, but at least I brought plenty of beer.
So here's the plan: if I drink enough beer and sit close enough to the fire to singe my pants, I should be able to 1) raise my body temperature high enough to fall asleep, and 2) once asleep, the alcohol should keep me there until morning. It's not a very good plan. I already know this. . .but it's all I got.
9:30 and I bid George a good night as he's talking about how many thermal blankets he has in the van. "That's great, George". I'm walking to the bathrooms with toothbrush and toothpaste, and swear I see a few flakes of snow float just beyond my night vision.
I'm in boxers, thermal shirt, and a winter cap. Leave the hiking socks on for good measure. I can do this. Heck, I just came from Iraq and a little cold front isn't going to ruin my superhero image. The sleeping bag zipper was checked and re-checked four times to ensure I couldn't zip up a few more centimeters. Maybe I can get a tight enough seal to re-breathe CO2 all night; a double effect of drowsiness and re-claiming lost body heat.
I'm wide awake. Worse than that: I'm already freezing. Don't worry, I tell myself, the beer is going to kick in any minute now. Settle yourself in, and let nature's medicinal barley and hop fermentation take care of the rest. Yeah, right.
An hour later, and I find myself at the bottom of the sleeping bag. In the fetal position. I can't stop shivering. Where did that beer go! I haven't drank in months, and there's no way my freakin' liver processed all that alcohol so fast! Doesn't this work for blizzard casualties?
The bottom of the sleeping bag. This is where I spent the next nine hours; a quivering mass of protoplasm. No sleep. All night. . .I think.
Morning finally comes. Character-building experiences like these only bring me closer to my final interpretation of what eternity looks like.

"Sleep OK, George?"

"Well, it was a little chilly when I first got in the van, but that didn't last long. I slept so good last night, I didn't even notice I was sleeping on my arm wrong. Bugger kinda' hurts this morning. The thermal blankets get so hot after a while. Oh, hey how did you make out in that tent."

George can be a funny guy. "Well, lets see. First of all, I didn't sleep. Second of all, I was crammed at the bottom of that sleeping bag in the fetal position all night. George, it's. . .oh, 80 degrees colder than where I just came from."

George chuckles "Yeah, I can see how that can be a difference."
Thank you George.

I've been on American soil 19 days now. I'm not counting. In fact I had no idea until an hour ago when I decided I thought I should know since I keep telling everyone "about two weeks". All the "wow" factor has just about run it's course. Culture shock at every turn is slowly fading as I integrate back to life again.
I'm still enjoying. Savoring every second. Culture shock and all. The only adjustment I'm really worried about at this point is temperature shock.

In all honesty, when I really have to pin it down, the hardest thing about coming back are the questions. Not a lot of questions. A lot of the same questions.
"So, how was Iraq?" Can I answer this one in two sentences or less?
"Well, should we be there?" Dunno, ask Rumsfeld.
"When are you due to go back?" I just left, people. Do I really have to ponder when I have to go back? Dunno, ask Cheney.
Every time, without fail, I know I'm giving this pained look as I attempt to answer yet another thoroughly complex question that I know will take hours to actually answer. How do I streamline the responses into a politician's soundbite? Dunno. . .
So I've resorted to this: "I can tell you the best thing about Iraq." This is getting them every time. I'm not trying to bait anyone. Just looking for a way to avoid the questions I'm not ready to answer.
"The best thing about Iraq is that I'm not there."

Monday, September 24, 2007


Nostos (Greek: νόστος) (pl. nostoi) Homecoming. It is a theme dealt with in many Homeric writings such as the Odyssey, in which the main character, Odysseus, strives to get home after the Trojan War.

Fishing trawler a half mile up the coast. I just walked over the berm from the cabana, and the trawler is the first thing I spy. She's slowly crawling my way, and only several hundred meters from shore. Great booms reaching out over the water like the tentacles of an octopus. But it's the birds that really nab my attention. A cloud of shorebirds lazily floating, diving, and endlessly rotating around the old trawler. The atom doesn't exist without the electrons, and the electrons have no function if it weren't for the atom. It's like that.
The surf is washing over my feet. The sun is climbing with nary a cloud in the sky. And it dawns on me: I'm here. Shorts, bare feet, and a beer. This is me, I'm doing this, and it just won't process.

Forty eight hours ago I was going through customs at Ali Al Saleem in Kuwait. We get briefed on the x-rays, screening processes, and I get to hear the same old story about the Marine that tried to smuggle two grenades just yesterday in his sea-bag. This is by far the busiest Marine ever, because he's smuggled thousands of them by now. After carefully packing my gear, a customs officer and I dismantle the entire thing again as we look for indigenous plants, M-16 rounds, and any domestic farm animals I may have run across and decided to keep. I asked her for the list of authorized contraband, and she rolled her eyes. I was asking more for my amusement and sanity more than anything else. . .and thought it was decent original material until she said "Yeah, yeah, we've heard all the jokes before. Even that one."
After customs, we were locked into a little compound with tents and a Green Beans Coffee Cafe. Each tent was packed with units going home. We shared with an Army medical unit out of Baghdad. They were Michigan reservists, and the soldier sitting next to me was from Detroit. Talked about the state of the Lions and Jon Kitna this year. I gave him credit for how Barry Sanders found a way to de-construct my Bears at least once a year when he was in the league, and we laughed away an hour talking about military medicine, family, football, and all we would do when we got home.
Ten p.m. they load us into a bus caravan for the two hour drive to Kuwait International Airport. And there we sat: ten minutes became twenty, and humorous rumors swirled around the bus about how they were tricking us. As if to prove the prediction, a customs officer hops onto the bus and tells us to get out. What?! "Two weapons have been lost on the base, and the gates are in lock down" he tells us. A few of us offer our weapons if it gets us to our planes any faster, but the offer was politely declined. So we pile back out and sit around the customs compound another half hour. A few shouts to form up, and we get excited again. False alarm.
Midnight ticks over, and we get the go-ahead. Form it up! Head count! Get on those buses! My pleasure . . .
The second the wheels lift from the tarmac that plane erupted in shouts, laughter, and clapping. It's official: they're actually letting us go home.
Eight hours later, and it's a dash through the Shannon, Ireland terminal. Over a hundred and twenty very thirst Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines have a fever. And the only prescription? A pint of Guinness stout is the way to cure this malady. We order our pint and extras. After the first one goes down, it's a balderdash as we mix and match the rest of the beers on our table. The last seven hours of the flight went much better than the first eight. . .
Saturday morning landing in Cherry Point, North Carolina. The cheers and clapping bring the plane to a roaring good touchdown. Flight crew laughing and clapping right along with us. After un-loading and loading our gear several more times on the flight line, we board buses for the hour ride to Camp Lejune. Families are there waiting. We coordinate to make sure new Dads get off the buses first. And there we are: exhausted, soaked in sweat, and smelling up the bus like a petting zoo.
Nobody cares. Buses roll up. Wives are holding their cheeks, crying and trembling in their beautiful summer dresses. Dads rush off first with laughing and running children jumping into their arms. Moms join the fray. A few parents make it too, and they stand patiently in the background waiting their turn, and waving little American flags. I hang back a minute or so; just taking it all in. A Rockwellian moment comes to life outside my little bus window. And right here/right now: all somehow seems right in the world.
A few of the guys will wait before they re-unite with family. Some are from as far away as Washington state and Guam. Tim rented a cabana on the beach for Saturday and Sunday night. I finally made it out Sunday morning after finishing some paperwork. Dump the daybag, ditch the uniform, and grab a beer. It's shorts, flip-flops, and an immediate walk up the berm onto the beach. And the beach is where I stayed the entire day. The cabana was just a beer outpost. . .because I have so much to catch up on. Every second savored. And that magnificent fishing trawler is only the beginning.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Camp Virginia, Kuwait

25 by 100 foot hut. The stench was overpowering by midday. The smell of old crusty uniforms in desperate need of a change out and stacked bodies in need of a scrub. So I sat outside and read James Herriot until the heat got to me, then re-entered when forced with few other choices.
We were at the Taquaddum A/DACG (arrival/departure air control group) terminal, and it was 20 hours and counting. No sure thing when flying out on your way home, we were on terminal standby.
The hut is the staging area and occasional place of permanent residence when one has nowhere else to go. The hut is too small. The hut smells like a hundred years of stink. The hut is all we have. The surgical team, a smattering of Fallujah corpsman, and a company of Marines are all staking a small piece of real estate. With scattered cots and chairs, the hut filled quickly in the morning, and by 9 AM, all seats were taken as we watched another group of Marines come and go. When the seats and cots were all doubled up, bodies started filling the floor, and required deft footwork to extract yourself in/out. Foosball table? Just became a zipcode for two Marines sleeping under it.
We all survived. Three MRE's and a few sneaks out to the chowhall/DFAC and we finally had our flight to Kuwait on a C-130. After a six hour transit that included loading the bags, unloading the bags, re-loading the bags, head count, repeat X2, we made it to Camp Virginia, Kuwait 36 hours ago. Tomorrow, customs in the afternoon and a flight home very early Saturday morning. Counting on a layover in Shannon, Ireland for a pint.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


The first one was different.
Not in the way you would expect.
It's not as if the first VBIED scared the religion into me, and all the rest got easier.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
With that first concussion wave dissipating, what I was about to realize was that as the reverberations faded, it was only the beginning of the experience. Of course I knew I was going to Anbar. Your gonna see some bad shit. Thought I was ready for it. Standard issue "bring it on" attitude: check.
The false bravado fell to the wayside as soon as those casualties started pouring in. I was quickly reminded that "talking the talk" has nothing to do with "walking the walk". You just can't predict how you will react until the bodies hit the floor.

I think it's because they were right there. Just didn't expect that. Just didn't think they could drive so close to the base, or penetrate right into the market like that. These suicidal men were driving trucks packed with explosives and chlorine, and hitting very close to home. Way too close. Announcing their martyrdom and deaths like a lion announces his domain over the Serengeti. To them, collateral damage isn't just a byproduct of their wickedness: it's the goal.

The aftermath rolling into Charlie Medical with that first VBIED was a shock to the system. With each subsequent blast, including those occasional unannounced controlled detonations, my feelings of impending dread only got worse as time went on.
Because then I knew what could happen.
Because then I knew it could be a very shitty day.
Because with each blast, I immediately entered the realm of the unknown. Casualties, oftentimes innocent civilians, started rolling in within minutes. How many was the first wave going to bring? Two? Ten? How many waves were there going to be? How long would they continue to pour in? Did the checkpoint get lucky and spot him before he got close to anyone else, and trigger the VBIED early when he panicked?

It was 3 AM, and I was wide awake. The surgical team has moved out of Ramadi, and is marking time on a small Army forward operating base (FOB) awaiting a plane ride to Kuwait. An Army artillery battery, only 3-4 kilometers away, is keeping me awake with the steady drumbeat of outgoing fires. It started on the eve of September 11th, and the nightly barrage has continued right into Ramadan. I have no idea what units they are supporting, or where they are firing at. I'm no longer in the know; just unclaimed baggage spinning around the "I would like to go home now" carousel. But the concussion of outgoing artillery is similar to a VBIED explosion. To close for comfort. I know this because it hurts. Deep down inside. When the first volley catches me by surprise, I keep hitting alert mode, wondering where the casualties will come from. I'm not sure if I can explain how it feels. It's just a deep twinge of pain in my chest developed over months of listening to detonations and dreading what comes next.

Sheikh Sattar assassination

Genuine Leader.
These are just a few of the adjectives I have heard used to describe the man who was responsible for bringing peace to Ramadi more than any other.
Sheikh Sattar was the mastermind and visionary leader who created and lead the way to the Sunni Awakening and was a top official of the Anbar Salvation Council. Uniting 42 clans together, tired of seeing his fellow Countrymen brutalized, intimidated, and murdered by Al Qaeda and other insurgent forces, Sheikh Sattar last year was the most influential leader in all of Anbar in bringing cooperation with U.S. authorities and providing personnel and winning the confidence of the local populace to secure the city of Ramadi with hundreds of young men eager to join the immature and woefully small Iraqi Police force at the time.

With his residence less than a kilometer from the Ar Ramadi back gate, Sheikh Sattar was continually attempting to build relationships with us by inviting units to his compound for afternoon tea and dinner. Our relationship was open and friendly. One of the surgical team members was just there last week. . .on the same day Sheikh Sattar was in Al Asad meeting with President Bush. Tonight, I'm saddened to write that he was assassinated a few hours ago just outside his compound by an IED blast.

As the surgical team sits here in Taquaddum and counts down the few remaining days left in Anbar, it's been a somber mood as we talk about all the good he has done and the personal loss felt. Sheikh Sattar's death is going to be a blow to the progress made in Ramadi and may initially shake the confidence of the city and it's officials. On the other hand, we sincerely hope that his death only further resolves the rest of the city and officials to double their resolve to eradicate Ramadi of it's violence and instability in the face of this shameful murder.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Anbar, meet the Ospreys

Loitering in the chow hall last night, I was sitting with the CASEVAC (casualty evacuation) corpsmen stationed here in Taquaddum. Having worked with them over the past seven months, I've never had the opportunity to sit and actually hold down a conversation until tonight. Flying missions with them was always a rushed affair filled with yelling report over the roar of prop wash and vague hand signals in the helo while we transported critically ill patients to Level III hospitals.
When I first arrived in Anbar in February, mission breakdown followed these general rules: daytime medevac was handled by the Marine Corps. and a pair of H-46 helicopters with two CASEVAC corpsmen, while night missions were handled by the Army aeromedical Blackhawks and a flight medic. However, I noticed over the past month that medevac missions called during the day were becoming more of an Army show. The invite is open to whoever shows up at the door, but only Blackhawks were coming to party. I made a mental note of it, but wasn't quite sure what to make of the change. Another clue was the Marines we found at our medical helo pad in Ramadi last week taking measurements.
So last night over pie and coffee, they told me the Army has completely taken over casevac and medevac duties in Iraq. The CASEVAC corpsmen I was sitting with said they've essentially been unemployed for the past three weeks. Question is, why?
Turns out, this is all related to the impending mission changes of the Marine Corps. H-46, as they are being replaced soon with the MV-22 Osprey. Army H-47 Chinooks have moved into Taquaddum, and Al Asad is finalizing preparations for 10 MV-22s out of New River Marine Corps. Air Station.
With over 19 years of research and development under it's collective belt, the MV-22 tilt rotor Osprey enters the fray in Anbar. Currently in transit on one of the Navy's helicopter assault carriers, the MV-22 is slated to begin operations in western Anbar before the close of September.
Considered a superior replacement to the Marine Corps. H-46 dual rotor medium lift helicopters, 5 MV-22 squadrons have been stood up coast to coast and are gearing up for deployments. The cornerstone of Marine assault support for over 40 years, the H-46 will be completely replaced by the MV-22 by 2018. Landing like a helicopter, but flying like a prop plane, the MV-22 is a one-of-a-kind production aircraft jointly developed by Boeing out of Philadelphia and Bell-Texron out of Ft. Worth, Texas.
Entering it's first real world mission, the Osprey comes with a long history of controversy and teeth gnashing in Washington and the Pentagon. Believe it or not, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney under the Bush senior administration spent his entire SecDef tenure trying to drive a stake through the heart of this program. Riddled with cost over-runs and legitimate questions of safety, engineering feasibility, and actual tactical usefulness, the Osprey program was shut down by Cheney only to be revived again by the Clinton administration.
Initial concerns center around several issues that may come into play as the Osprey takes over assault support for combat operations in Iraq:

  • The prop wash during landing is significant. The Marine Corps. needs the Osprey to respond to point of injury areas and medically evacuate casualties from the firefight. Wash from the propellers will be an issue here. In Ramadi, we didn't have the luxury of a concrete landing pad. Just a good old fashioned "improved" landing zone with dirt and rocks. The first time an Osprey lands at Charlie Medical will be an interesting event to say the least.
  • At over 200mph, the Osprey will be fast, but lacks the ability to defend itself. Instead of having machine gunners facing out either side of the aircraft like the Blackhawks and H-46, the plans are to have one gunner located on the rear ramp area.
  • Heat signatures are higher compared to other helicopters. Speed, maneuverability, and countermeasures will need to offset this liability.
  • Helicopters are crucial to the mission because they are just plain useful in so many scenarios: running supplies, dropping off troops almost anywhere they are needed, aircraft personnel recovery (TRAP), ecetera. The Osprey is touted to be better at everything, taking Marine Corps. combat operations to new paradigms of tactical ability. Deploying with a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Osprey will need to be able to land and take off from every Naval vessel afloat, or it's not going to be operationally useful. It has yet to prove itself in the arena the Marine Corps. performs at it's best: land and support a mess of triggerpullers on the beachhead and send them forth in an overwhelming tempo of speed and firepower.
My thoughts are a mix of scepticism and a genuine desire to see the Osprey come into Anbar and be a resounding success. For the Osprey to land in Anbar and prove incapable of supporting the mission is a thought I just don't want to entertain. We have sacrificed 23 lives, billions of dollars, decades of research and development, and pinned the Marine Corps. entire forseeable future on this one aircraft. The buy-in of the MV-22 isn't just big deal, it's going to define the Marine Corps. for the next four decades.

Ramadan, Up-Ticks, and Stage Left Exits

Ramadan, the holiest month of Islam, is upon us. Following a lunar calendar that varies slightly from year to year, Ramadan, the ninth lunar cycle month, will begin around September 12th. Consistently over the past few years, the preceeding period and Ramadan have been markers of significant insurgent activity and concentrated attacks on Coalition units.
Ramadan and it's implications for our current benchmarks of success are so intertwined, General Odierno has been quoted in the past few days stating this year's Ramadan will forecast our ability to begin troop reductions, currently at 155,000 troops with the surge forces.

In Ramadi, we have seen a slight up-tick in activity in and around the city. Combat engineers running multiple missions have found an increase in IED activity yet again. Running four missions simultaneously, three came into significant contact with IED emplacements.
Ramadan is not the only explaination. Historically since OIF2 (we are currently in OIF5), unit turnover leads to insurgents taking full advantage of the confusion and inexperience of newly placed units. The combat engineers along with a few Marine units are either turning over control to replacements or are making preparations to draw down certain sectors of Anbar. New guys go in with the eagerness and aggresiveness of freshmen on the first day of class, often leading to early mistakes. With veterans coming out on second or third tours, we are hoping for a shorter learning curve this time.

As for the surgical team, our replacements arrived four days ago. Heralded by a SVBIED that morning, the new team arrived via convoy in the afternoon soaked in sweat and caked with dirt and the pent-up exhaustion of travelling for four days straight. After a few hours of sleep and dinner, they dug right in and were eager to start taking over the mission. We were more than happy to accomodate em'.
Yesterday evening we turned over operations to the new team. Preceeding transfer of authority was three solid days reviewing procedures, flight equipment, mass casualty walk-throughs, walking blood bank, logistical reports, ect. With the new team in place, filled with the corporate knowledge of seven months experience of the old team, Ramadi surgical has officially left the building. It took half the night sitting on the flight line, but we finally caught an H-53 to Taquaddum and collapsed into a bunkbed somewhere in TQ around 2 AM.