Saturday, April 22, 2006

One Down, Way Too Many To Go

I have a list of things I hope to accomplish while I’m in Iraq:

1. Stop all the bad guys.
2. Save all the good guys.
3. Develop some reliable way to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
4. Find WMDs so I can stop feeling used by the Bush administration.
5. Discover a new oil field that the U.S. can secretly tap. I figure the sooner G.W. gets what he wants, the sooner I can go home.
6. Catch Osama Bin Laden. I've heard some rumors about this and I might actually have to leave Iraq for that one.
7. Run a satellite version of the Boston Marathon in the ancient city of Ur.

I’m happy to report that I was able to cross one off the list. Last week I finished the Iraq Boston Marathon in an Army base in southern Iraq. The Boston Athletic Association set it up in conjunction with the Army and it was a lot of fun. The route ran up to the famous Ziggurat of Ur, a massive terraced pyramid in Abraham’s old hometown.

Note that I said I “finished” the marathon, instead of saying I “ran” the marathon. Somewhere between mile 14 and mile 16 my body crapped out on me in the 107-degree heat. This was my first marathon and I only had a month to train. It wasn’t an ideal situation but it was probably the only one of my goals that I, or anybody else, would be able to accomplish while in Iraq.

Marathons are cliché to use as analogies for life, and as I limped the last few miles to the finish line it was all I could do not to think of comparisons. Oh please tell me that our stay in Iraq will not be like a marathon. If it is, I’m about ready to wave for the first aid car to pick me up, stick an IV in my arm and drive me home.

In the mean time, I’ll keep my mind off the analogy by concentrating on my other goals. I think Bin Laden might be hanging out in the movie theater on Camp Anaconda, it’s always the last place you check.

photos: (top) The Ziggurat of Ur. (bottom) I'm standing on the steps of the ziggurat. Photos by Traci Varrasso, international recording artist (who, by the way, is not brainwashed)

Monday, April 10, 2006

Following Orders

I know the Army isn’t good at a lot of things, like building nations, winning hearts and minds, and sticking to a budget. But I always thought the Army was good in one area: following orders. Sure, we soldiers are a crass bunch of salty mongrels, but when we get a direct order, we follow it right? Not really.

For years now, every person in the Army has had it drilled into him that sexual harassment is absolutely unacceptable. So why is it still so prevalent?

A few weeks ago, I traveled to a remote base in western Iraq. There were only a handful of females and they ran the shower and dining facilities. I asked one female if she had any problems out in the desert among all the rough men. She emphatically replied that no one treated her any differently. Good, I thought.

I was doing a story on the shower facility and all the soldiers I interviewed kept saying how competent their commander was. I’m used to hearing soldiers complain about their commanders so I was impressed and set out to find her.

“Do you know where Capt. L is?” I asked a passing soldier.
“Oh, yeah, she’s the hot one,” he said.
“Do you where she is?”
“Just walk that way until you see a hot captain.”

I laughed a bit because I figured these guys were probably starved for the female form. Out in the middle of the desert surrounded by a bunch of ugly grunts, they had probably built this captain up to be an Aphrodite in carnate. And so I found the comment understandable and not particularly malicious.

When I found Capt. L, she was pretty and, more importantly, very competent. I was impressed with the efficiency in which she ran the logistics for the base. I thought to myself, here is one of the best and brightest of the military. I decided I might do a sidebar personality feature on her because an officer who knows her job is definitely newsworthy these days.

I asked her if she felt she was treated any differently being a female in the remote base. She said definitely not.

I finished up the interview and was about to ask if I could follow her around and gets some photos when a male master sergeant butted in.

“Hey, sergeant T., you should get some photos of her with her top off.”

She blushed and played it off as if it were just part of being in the Army. But I could hear her voice crackle ever so slightly with emotion. All the guys laughed as if it were some clever repartee. I didn’t laugh, she didn’t laugh, and I didn’t dare ask her right after that comment if I could take pictures of her.

The foul minds and untamed tongues of undisciplined soldiers took something innocent and good and made it seem vulgar.

No wonder both females I interviewed denied any different treatment. They probably felt, in a sad and strange way, that they were responsible for the comments and would rather deny the existence of the problem than to talk with some stranger about it.

It’s not OK and it should not be tolerated any more. I’ve assumed that the females are fine with or they would speak up. But that’s not true. I’ve also assumed that I could get in trouble if I call out someone of higher rank than I. This may be true, but I don’t care anymore. The next person I hear sexually harassing a female is going to get a double helping of the wrath of Marshall, which anyone will tell you is not that impressive but it’s the thought that counts.

I will never again tolerate anyone disobeying this order.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Best Combat Pedicure in Iraq

After having traveled to many of the major bases in Iraq, I feel it’s time to announce the winner of the “Best Combat Pedicure” contest.

At Camp Anaconda, I had a decent pedicure, but the pedicurist went chintzy on the massage at the end. If that’s not reason enough for instant disqualification, then the shoddy pedicure they gave my friend, Ryan, is.

It took me months to convince Ryan of the importance of combat pedicures to proper foot care in the war zone. So I felt particularly bad when he came back with bleeding feet. Camp Anaconda is completely out of the running for best combat pedicure.

Al Asad Air Base, a Marine installation in western Iraq, had a facility that offered pedicures for the usual rate, $7. For anyone who still considers combat pedicures as antithetical to military machismo, consider the kind of guts it takes for a Soldier to walk into a room full of Marines and ask for a pedicure. It doesn’t get manlier than that.

Everyone stared at me and the proprietor quietly explained that that particular service wasn’t available because of lack of interest. I guess Marines just don’t understand good foot care. Al Asad is out.

The Q-West Base Complex in northern Iraq has a Turkish group that does pedicures, manicures and half-hour massages. I was excited to sample the massage since good muscle alignment is also critical to combat readiness. However, when I got to the facility, I found it was more of a dirty shack. All I could think of was the torture scene in “Lawrence of Arabia.” I passed. Q-West is out.

Camp Diamondback, next to Mosul, Iraq, offers pedicures for the standard rate. Mia, the pedicurist, and her co-workers found it hilarious that a male soldier wanted a pedicure. As my feet soaked, she grilled me:

“Are you married?”
“To a woman?”
“Do you have children?”
“Yes, I have a new daughter.”

This seemed to please her and she ran giggling back to the other ladies who all erupted in Tagalog. When she came back, she explained that they were all betting that I wasn’t married. I showed her my ring to reassure her.

The pedicure was definitely the best in Iraq. Mia explained to me that the key to a good pedicure was the massage. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, she used to be a massage therapist at Camp Diamondback until a nasty incident a few months prior when a male soldier accused one of the massage therapists of sexual harassment. After that, the Camp Diamondback command outlawed massages, leaving Mia to do pedicures.

Massage therapy’s loss it pedicure’s gain. Mia and her team at Camp Diamondback win the award “Best Combat Pedicure.”

photo: Mia, second from the right, has three children and has been working in Iraq for over 2 1/2 years. I asked her how long she would stay. "Until I find an Iraqi husband," she said laughing.