Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Road Trip Iraq 2006 - Day Three

I woke up to the sound of explosions. I could hear the rounds going off in the distance like a door slamming, and then an instant after, I could feel the air compress in my trailer. I rolled over and went back to sleep. It didn’t bother for a few reasons: One, I’m stationed at Camp Anaconda, AKA Mortar-itaville, so I know that once you hear the explosion and you’re still there, then there’s nothing to be worried about; and two, it sounded like outgoing rounds, not incoming.

About an hour later, I had to get up because if I didn’t, my bladder was going to explode. The rounds kept hitting off in the distance, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they were targeting. The Q-West Base Complex is in the middle of nowhere without a building for miles in all directions. I imagined a mud hut erupting into the air and a little boy with a goat shaking his hand at the sky, or America, or both.

I learned quickly that the local command had received some intelligence about a possible attack. I can’t go into details, but the security levels were raised to the highest level I’ve ever seen them. It was incredibly inconvenient and annoying to the point that I absent mindedly stated the following truism: “Gees, it’s like were living under martial law here.”

Eventually we hooked up with our next convoy and headed toward Camp Diamondback. I was driving this time and I couldn’t help but remember the last time I drove the stretch of road, about three months ago. At the time, I wanted to be alert so I downed a Diet Coke right before we left, but about five minutes out of the gate, I realized that I had to pee in a bad way. The body armor pushed down on my bladder like a large woman stomping grapes. One hour later, I did something that was embarrassing at first, but of which I’m now quite proud. I filled up a 1.5-liter water bottle while driving 60 miles per hour on the most dangerous roads in the world and I didn’t spill a drop.

This time, however, I barely drank a thing the whole day to ensure I would not have to do a repeat of my amazing feat. I knew we had made it half way when I could smell the raw sewage at a spot near the road where we think a line broke. A lime green pools sits next to the road and cooks in the hot sun. You can smell it a mile away. I was glad when we passed it.

The trip went well with no major incidents. However, we were starting to notice some problems with our rebuilt humvee. Our radio wasn’t amplifying like it should have so we had a mechanic look at it at Camp Speicher. He removed the antenna mount and showed us two nickel-sized holes in the base. He shook it and the shrapnel rattled inside it like a maraca.

“I’m guessin’ that’s not good,” Sgt. Powell said.

“Nope, that ain’t good,” the mechanic replied.

Next, Sgt. Powell’s door stopped latching. It even opened while we were on the road and she had to hold it shut and drive for about a half hour. We replaced the antenna mount and found a way to get the heavy armored door to shut, but our confidence in Paparazzi was seriously waning. Plus, we realized that Paparazzi is the plural of paparazzo and that maybe we shouldn’t have given a plural name to a single vehicle. Oh well, it got us to Camp Diamondback. We picked up Capt. Andrews at the airport and went to sleep in trailers that smelled like a smoking room in a cheap motel.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Border Line Crazy

Before I post the events of Day Three of Road Trip Iraq 2006, I need to take a moment to comment on current events. Bush just announced that he was going to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to secure the Mexican border.

The biggest problem is that illegal immigrants come to the U.S., not to spite conservatives, but because there are jobs. It’s simply a free market functioning in a global economy. If there weren’t jobs for them, they wouldn’t come. Those who spend their nights worrying about Mexicans and other nationalities crossing the border are not thinking logically. Such a sense of immediacy on this issue seems to be spawned from xenophobia, racism and ignorance.

Free markets and globalization are like the laws of physics, it’s better to work with them than to try to stop them. In that sense, sending the National Guard to stop the natural flow of a labor force to an overabundant job market, would be like calling in the Marines to stop gravity. But wait, someone might think, don’t we need gravity? Yes, of course. But wait, someone might also think, don’t we also need an essential workforce that has been functioning in our economy for decades? The answer again, yes, of course.

Besides being futile, this answer to the supposed problem of illegal immigration is a bit hackneyed. Send in the troops and as the border patrol increases, the amount of troops will decrease. That sounds familiar. I’ve finally figured out what the neocon vision is: the military will solve all the problems. I’m just glad they caught the killer alligator today. If that had gone on a few more weeks we would have been deployed for Operation Jogger Shield.

Finally, does any one care about the poor suckers that have to leave their jobs and families to go stop illegal immigrants? Bush said that it was important for everyone to understand that the U.S. military was strong enough to fight a war in Iraq, handle natural disasters at home, and still secure the southern border. What? I guess he thinks that two out of every three years home is good enough. This makes sense if you consider that he spends almost two out of every three months at his ranch. His statement sounds a bit too much like “let them eat cake” for my taste.

In the end, America shouldn’t look to the military to take care of all its problems. We have celebrities for that.

Road Trip Iraq 2006 - Day Two

Rain hitting the yellow canvas of the massive tent woke me up at about 11 a.m. the next morning. I took a shower, packed my things and then Powell and I went to Taco Bell, the only one I’ve seen in Iraq. A soft taco and burrito hit the spot.

After lunch, we stopped by a maintenance company to do a story on their recovery missions. When a vehicle breaks down or is hit by an IED, a recovery team will respond within an hour to get the vehicle and any people left behind. They’re also experts at getting vehicles out of mud.

Sgt. Powell simply mentioned that she’d like some footage of them doing their jobs and they immediately offered to do a demonstration. For the next two hours, the recovery guys stuck different vehicles in the deep mud behind their unit building. They even got their Gator, a four-wheel drive golf cart, stuck. That’s just how bored they were.

I don’t know how they could be bored when one of the most novel pieces of war memorabilia was sitting right in front of their company area, a WWII, Italian made, mini-tank. It’s a two-seater vehicle that answers the age-old question: What do Shriners drive when they go to war?

When Powell and I finished laughing at the little tank, we caught a convoy and headed up to the Q-West Base complex. This trip wasn’t anything like the last one, a third country national (what the Army calls someone not from Iraq or the U.S.) rolled his semi truck right in front of us.

He broke his leg, but he was OK otherwise and was even able to sit and wait for a medical evacuation. The truck would have to wait for a recovery team, maybe even the one from Speicher. Rolling semi trucks is a rare site on an American highway, but in Iraq, it’s a regular occurrence. Most of the guys who run the convoys with third country nationals say there is a rampant drinking problem. This rollover was most like alcohol related. But don’t be too quick to judge. If you had to drive an un-armored truck on the Iraqi highways all day, you might hit the sauce a bit too.

With the driver evacuated and the truck recovered, we made it up to Q-West with no problems. Instead of sleeping in a circus tent, like the night before, we were lucky enough to get our own trailers. I felt like a movie star.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Road Trip Iraq 2006

I waited for the last minute to pack for the two-week road trip to the Turkish boarder and back. Part of me wanted to play it safe and waste away the last 75 days of my deployment in the comparative luxury and safety of Camp Anaconda. But Capt. Andrews, the brains behind the expedition to Kurdistan, kept tempting me.

“It’s like nothing you’ve seen in Iraq, Thompson,” he said speaking of the Kurdish controlled area in northern Iraq. “It’s like a different world.”

Of course, I had to go. But getting there wasn't easy.

Day 1: Camp Anaconda to Camp Speicher

Sgt. Powell, my broadcast counterpart for the trip, found a convoy that would let us tag along for the first leg of the trip. We loaded up our new armored humvee, which Powell christened “Paparazzi,” and left for Camp Speicher. When I say the humvee is new, I mean new to us. The Army rebuilt it in Kuwait after and IED blew the right side to pieces. It’s one of the first rebuilds in the war zone and has a new engine and all the other bells and whistles that only the best armored vehicles have. Old Paparazzi’s a pretty sweet ride as far as rebuilt armored humvees go.

Just outside the gate of Camp Anaconda, we saw small arms fire and I knew it was going to be a long night. The red dashes of tracer rounds cut across the night sky. As far as fireworks go, this is fairly unimpressive. But when you remember the little flying lead things that the dashes represent, it becomes more significant. The insurgents hid in the tress and tall grass that grows prodigiously after the rainy season around Camp Anaconda, but they weren’t firing directly at us. Instead, they were signaling someone down the road to get the IEDs ready.
“Here we go,” I thought as we turned on to the main road.

In the next half hour, we safely passed about three IEDs. (Unless they go off, it’s hard to be sure if something is definitely an IED). The third IED we passed was the funniest.
I saw American vehicles in the median of the highway.

“What are they doing just sitting there in the median?” I asked Powell.

“Oh they’re probably just doing a presence patrol,” she replied to my satisfaction.

Later, I saw some water bottles with chemical lights in them sitting in the road and commented on how pretty they looked glowing on the highway at night.

Then Powell noticed that no one from the convoy was behind us.

Apparently, a patrol found an IED, marked it with chemical lights, and then decided to set up a roadblock. Unfortunately they didn’t get the roadblock going until half our convoy went through.

Well, a lot of stuff happened after that, but I can’t really give you any details because it involves our tactics and techniques. I can say, however, that for the next three hours I had my M-16 aimed at a civilian vehicle. I won’t lie, the possibility of death is scary and the thought of trying to stop a possible vehicle-borne IED with an M-16 is scary as well. I found myself wishing I had a larger caliber weapon and at the same time wishing I didn’t have any weapon at all. For me, the thought of having to shoot someone is scarier than being shot. And if I thought I might be shooting an innocent person, I’d rather he shot me.

Still, I had to think of the other people in the other vehicles that I was protecting. I couldn’t make a decision like that for them. So I kept my weapon aimed just above the right headlight.

Luckily, after waiting it out, the car thought better of it, and turned around. Soon we reunited with our convoy and we made it up to Speicher.

A soldier at the convoy support center directed us to two big tents, about 100 meters long. Powell went in the female tent and I went into the male tent. I had the whole thing to myself. Half the tent was falling in and the center poles were all askew. I grabbed one of hundreds of cots and put it next to the light switch in the middle of the cavernous shelter. I went to sleep wondering what else could be in the tent without me ever knowing.