Please pray that Brent & his group of guys can spend this Thanksgiving back at home, with their families.
Well, our trip to the armpit of the world known as Iraq is now almost half over.After having been out of the wire more since my last “spam” update, I can still say that I’m happy to be here at FOB Warhorse rather than anywhere else in our area of operations. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a great place, but when compared with the other FOBs, I think it ranks as the top place to be. We only have a handful of trees to offer any shade outside, it gets pretty dusty when the wind blows and the mess hall frequently runs out of certain items (it’s hard to build a salad without lettuce), but we’re (almost) happy to call it home.
To give you a sense of what our routine is, watch the movie, “Groundhog Day”. For most of us here, that is exactly what it is like (except for the nice Pennsylvania setting, cool weather and decent hotel). Wake up, eat, go to the office and do work, eat, do more work, eat, do more work, go home. Repeat seven days a week. The only thing that breaks up the monotony is a trip off the FOB or mid-tour R&R. It gets old quickly.
A couple of weeks ago, we had an interesting experience here. As dusk was approaching, we had a dust storm roll in at the same time a thunderstorm was bearing down on us. If you have ever seen the movie, “Total Recall,” with the Red Martian sky, it was very similar to that. See the attached pictures.
The past 3 weeks I’ve been filling in for a guy who has been on leave. I’ve been pulling 12 hour shifts overseeing operations in our Brigade Tactical Operations Center. When I’m done with that, I throw in a couple of hours at my usual job and then get a couple hours of sleep before I have to do it again. I’ve only got another day or two of doing this before I can get back to my normal routine. I’m counting the hours at this point, if that gives you any indication of how much I like this temporary job.
Our primary goal over here is to put the Iraqis in the lead, both in terms of governance and security. It has progressed more on the local level than it has on the national level from the governance side. Now that they have finally gotten through the Prime Minister selection impasse, we are hoping that they can quickly build a coalition government and get down to business. On the provincial and local levels, where we are focused, things are progressing at a faster pace. It seems that most of them want the best for their people and communities, but the graft, corruption and religious/tribal allegiances many times get in the way of forward progress.
Virtually all of our military operations include the Iraqi Army. Every day they make more progress and are even running their own operations with only some coaching being provided by our teams of mentors. This is a good news story because it means that their confidence and skills are increasing to the point where they are self-sufficient. They still have a long way to go in many areas, but they are making progress on a daily basis.
The one thing that we still have a hard time dealing with is all of the various religious and tribal nuances. It is very complex, with many subtleties that you can’t just learn in a matter of months. Having the interpreters assist in navigating these minefields is very helpful.
The anti-Iraqi forces (AIF) over here, comprised of religious zealots and terrorists, continue to wreak havoc on the civilians and the Iraqi Security Forces. They know that if they bring the fight to us, we will fight back hard, so they are going after the “softer” targets, like the civilian populace. The AIF are trying to intimidate or kill those who don’t support them, creating homogenous neighborhoods (eliminating anyone that doesn’t belong to your religious thought) and they are doing a decent job of it. You see the results on the TV every night. The AIF mentality is something that is hard for civilized people to understand. Killing innocent civilians achieves their objectives because it puts fear into the public and diminishes the population’s belief that the legitimate government can provide adequate security. If they lose some of their own (either ethnic or religious sect), that is OK, because the end result is still achieved. If they lose some fighters, it hurts them more, but is still considered an acceptable loss because those that died did so as a martyr. Just more propaganda material for them. It is crazy.
We are able to watch a lot of the US media outlets over here. They provide a mix of coverage from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox News. While they throw in an occasional story about the good stuff we are doing over here, what you typically get is the “if it bleeds, it leads” angle. Nothing new for the media. Continually, the focus is on how many US soldiers have been lost over here. What we take away from it over here is that if they keep emphasizing the daily US body count, it will turn more people against supporting the efforts over here and the war on terror. It is true that every loss we have over here is tragic and we hate to see the number increase, but let’s put this in perspective. In Viet Nam, we lost 58,000 troops in 10 years. On average, that is 5,800/year. As I write this, we have lost 2,405 US troops. That is about 800/year. Not something to be proud of, but it is significantly smaller number. Now, let’s compare that to another number that you never hear mentioned in the media. Over the last year in our area of operation alone (about 150 km2 north and east of Baghdad), here is the body count (in round numbers): US troops – 10; Iraqi Security Forces (Police and Army) – 250; civilians – 900. Almost 90 times more civilians killed than US forces. This pales to the number of people killed in just the Baghdad area. The problem is that you never hear these numbers discussed on what is called the “news”. Many of the same people that say we need to go to other places in the world to stop the genocide, ethnic cleansing or (put in your cause here) don’t highlight these numbers either because it is not the cause d’jour or because it isn’t reported enough. Those that think all of the killing will stop if we would only leave, are the same ones that think that dialog with cold blooded murders will make them like you more and not want to kill you. They have no idea of the brutality of the AIF. Their sole purpose is to kill those that don’t subscribe to their religious ideology. Period.
There is currently lots of debate in the US about immigration and secure borders. If you want to know why secure borders are critical to a nation’s sovereignty and security, you only need to look at the borders of Iraq. The border is long, largely unguarded and extends across vast desert plains and mountainous areas. With the exception of Kuwait and Jordan, there is significant “influence” pushed across the borders by their neighbors (Syria, Turkey and Iran) for their various political and religious reasons. It’s funny how you never hear about that in the “news”. I can’t go into more detail, but just know that most of Iraq’s neighbors don’t have Iraq’s best interests in mind. With essentially open borders, there is lots of stuff coming across that goes unchecked, is let in corrupt officials or those who support the outside influences. If everyone and everything coming into Iraq was properly screened and authorized, the amount of bad stuff coming into the country would go down significantly and we could get home sooner. Do we need to know and control who is coming across the US borders? Absolutely. One look over here and it should be clear.
The same arguments could be applied to the United States. Mexico has their best interest in mind when it comes to not putting a fence up on the border. Why keep citizens on their side of the border who the government can’t properly protect or service and who live in poverty? Why not send them across a barely protected border where they can make more money in a month than they would make in a year and then send that money back home? It is in their best interest to do this, not ours. How do we know if terrorists, criminals and other ne’er-do-wells are coming into the country if they are just walking across our leaky borders?
a boy and his Blackhawk
Yes, it is that time again….time for another update from the front lines in Iraq. The big news since the last update is that we finally got Abu Musab al-Zarqawi! We knew that he was a frequent traveler through our area, but we could never get enough information on him to pinpoint where he was.
This time was different. A unit that we work with had gotten enough intelligence to pinpoint where he was and the rest of the story was on the news. I was acting as the Battle Major (the guy who runs current operations) at the time, so I got to see the last 15 minutes of this chain of events unfold and then deal with the aftermath. For operational security reasons, we weren’t even told who the target was. However, the next morning when I came in, they whole story hit the media and all the dots got connected. He was less than 5 miles from our FOB. Of course, with a story this big, the media has to get all of the on-site footage that they can, so they packed a bunch of media folks into a couple of helicopters and flew them out to the crater and the few standing remnants of the house. After they left, we had the task of bulldozing the entire thing under. It is now just a flat spot on the ground surrounded by palm trees. We were not under the illusion, as some of the media were, that as soon as we eliminated al-Zarqawi everything would calm down and we could all go home. Al Queda is damaged, but still very much alive.
The last week of July though the first three weeks in August are known as the “Black Days.” These are traditionally the hottest days of the year. This year was no exception. The highs were over 120 degrees most every day. In some places I’m sure it got to 130 degrees. Walking out of our air conditioned headquarters building during the heat of the day felt literally like walking into a blast furnace. I don’t know how the Iraqis stand it with little to no air conditioning. I don’t have much of a right to complain though since I’m inside most of the day. To me, the real heroes of the battle over here are the guys who have to wear their 40+ pounds of body armor and protective gear and walk the streets on patrol or sit in the gunner’s hatch on a Hummer rolling down the road. I don’t know how they do it day in and day out.
You would think that being in a helicopter flying along at 120+ mph would give you some welcome relief to the heat. Unfortunately, in the Blackhawk helicopters all it does is throw that same 120 degree heat at you at 120+ mph. There is no relief. The Chinook helicopters (the big double rotor ones) are even worse. The little air that does circulate in there tends to pull the heat from the engines and come in from the back end (they fly with the tail ramp down) and move its way to the front. Even when flying at night, it feels like 130+ degrees inside there as you sit with all of your body armor on and sweating to death.
All of the water for use in our showers, toilets and sinks are stored in large plastic tanks outside with no shade. I came up with a new definition of “hot” this summer. When you are able to move the faucet handle all the way from hot to cold and back again and the “cold” water from the tanks is as hot as the water coming out of the water heater, it is hot.
The Black Days ended last week and the temps dropped to around a “cool” 110 degrees. We considered that a welcome relief for a couple of days. It didn’t last long. We are almost back up to 120 degrees. Last night at 12:30 am, it was a “cold” 95 degrees. Over here, when you talk about temperatures, it is all relative. In about another month, we should be topping out in the 90s. We can hardly wait.
The hot weather usually brings out its share of “interesting” creatures and I’m not talking about the type that you find at Venice Beach. The most interesting thing that I’ve seen out here is the “legendary” camel spider. I’ve seen pictures of these things that get to about 12” across, but we don’t have anything near that size around here. They do get to about the size of my hand. They aren’t poisonous, but you sure wouldn’t want to get bit by one of them. When you put two of them together, it provides for quite a show as they fight to the death. The loser is usually eaten. Below is a picture of one of the larger ones that we caught around here. It is standing over a quarter I threw in the box to give some perspective to its size. Lizards aren’t on their diet, so these guys were safe.
I thought that we’d see more creatures, but in addition to the camel spiders, I’ve only seen a handful of lizards, one snake track on a dirt road and a very small scorpion that was in our office. The worst thing out here is the hardest to see. There are these little flying and biting bugs called sand flys. They are tan in color, very hard to see, you can’t hear them or feel them when they land on you. The big ones are only about 1/8”, but you’ll know when they’ve visited you. They have a bite similar to that of a fire ant. I don’t know how they do it with their small size, but they can really tear you up if you don’t put on any insect repellent or spray down your living area with the stuff. I don’t know how the Iraqi, many of whom sleep on their roofs during the hot summers, put up with them.
A month or so ago, Prime Minister Maliki spoke to our Congress. His speech was difficult to hear in the bustle of our dining facility, so we had to read the main idea snippets that the news channel put up on the bottom of the screen. One item that they put up said, “PM Maliki: This war is between true Islam and the terrorists.” Taking this at face value, many would tend to agree with his statement. If you took “true Islam” to equal the government of Iraq or the peace-loving citizens of Iraq and the “terrorists” to be the ones that want to undermine peace or implement a fundamentalist Islamic republic, this is a true statement. However, over here there are many nuances in their choice of words as they mix religion into everything.
The Shia Muslims don’t like the Sunni Muslims and vice versa. They both consider their view of Islam to be the right one. Now, take the snippet above and put it into this context. PM Maliki is a Shia Muslim. We frequently hear stories about religions militias (from both sides) setting up road blocks and pulling people out of their cars. If your name sounds like it a name from the “other” Muslim sect, you are typically accused of being a terrorist, typically tortured, shot to death at point blank range and your body is left in the street.
So the question I leave for you all to ponder is which one did he mean? One interpretation hopefully leads to a peaceful and prosperous Iraq and the other leads to more of what we’ve seen the past several years and a bigger threat to all civilized people across the world. I guess that only time will tell.
As you have probably all heard, there is a major ongoing operation down in Baghdad, called “Operation Together Forward.” It is a combined operation with Coalition and Iraqi security forces with the purpose of restoring order to Baghdad. Many feel as though this will be the defining operation of our whole effort over here because “as Baghdad goes, so goes rest of the country.” If they are successful at restoring order to Baghdad and the Iraqis are successful at maintaining that order, there is considerable hope. Unfortunately, the Iraqis decided to advertise the operation early and give many of the bad guys time get out of the city with their tools of death before the operation started. Despite this, the operation has been a tremendous success. As they section off the city and clear it out from bad guys and weapons, they are finding a resultant 86% drop in killings and other terrorist related activities in these areas.
There was an interview with an Iraqi Police Chief from the Baghdad area the other day in which he said that his department had always had control over his area. The Iraqi and US government and military officials all looked at him like he had a horn growing out his head. He was either seriously confused or he was just saying that to impress the media. Either way, nobody believed him. Maybe this operation is providing them the break they need to get a toehold on the security in their sections of the city. We can only hope that the Iraqi Police are able to maintain this order. A lasting peace in Baghdad means that we can all come home sooner and hopefully with fewer casualties.
That’s about it from here for now. We have a couple of more months to go, so I may look at doing one more update before we head back to the clean and cool air of Colorado.
Keep us and the families of all those deployed in your prayers. It does make a difference.
Chaplain’s Thought of the Day – “Those who read the news are misinformed. Those who don’t read the news are uninformed.” Attributed to Mark Twain.