I have received so much feedback, support and visitors to the Iron Camel Blog, that I decided to make my own website. To everyone that has supported me, gave me advice, linked me, thank you very much. Especially my wife Larson!
Poo River Bridge was closed to keep the people in the neighborhoods on each side of this human waste canal from blowing each other up. The closing of the bridge took advantage of the inherent laziness of people by taking away convenient route to get to the other side of this great divide. The plan was successful. Five years later, this bridge re-opening ceremony was to embody a Sunni and Shia unity forming one Muslim Iraqi people, brothers in arms, to support a prosperous future of Iraq.
At first it made me feel good about what we have done in the country. This showed one more step toward a peaceful nation. Maybe, the 4000+ soldiers that gave their lives didn’t do so in vain. Maybe they brought peace and democracy to a nation; a nation that has the potential to reap the benefits of oil production and bring wealth and success to its people.
Today, thanks to the training and money provided by American Soldiers and taxpayers, the Iraqi Army has a grip on the security of the country. It’s loose, but it’s a grip nonetheless.
Iraqi soldiers surrounded the tent, filled the streets, rooftops and the bridge itself. The significance of the ceremony was important enough to lend itself to a very real potential; the enemy arriving with a vest filled with screws, nails, ball bearings and homemade explosives. A bomb going off here would kill many important people and would surely make international news. Fortunately, it didn’t happen.
We sat in the back of the tent, merely a shadow of the Iraqi general we were advising, watching as sheiks, other Iraqi generals and religious leaders arrive. There were lots of smiles, handshaking, and cheek kissing between leaders of both the Sunni and Shia neighborhoods and mulhallas (sub neighborhoods) in this community. A community once divided socially by religion and physically by an open, black water irrigation system.
In the 120 degree heat, we listened to readings from the Quoran, poetry from local civilians, and speeches from top generals. They talked about the great things the Iraqi Army has done and the secure future that is in store for the Iraqi people. Everyone felt good about themselves; you could feel it in the air.
As we stood to move to the ribbon cutting and bridge crossing there was an announcement. A couple of the religious leaders wanted to make statements. Everyone obliged and returned to their seats.
Sunni and Shia both stood and made the same claims. My translator began to speak, “A day of brotherhood, unity, and security. There was to be only one people; Iraqi Muslims. No more Sunni, no more Shia…..”
My translator stopped speaking.
“What are they saying?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know.”
“Okay, sir. Coalition Forces and Terrorists are no long welcome in this country.” my translator stated.
I sat there boiling. I understand they want their country back. I get it. Really, I do, and they can have it. It’s hot, dusty, stinky and corrupt. I miss my family, my house, my dogs, my car and the United States. It costs American taxpayers way too much financially for us to be in this money pit we call Iraq. But to say it that way? It was all I could do to keep from creating an international incident by telling this old fart to go pack sand.
How about this; we leave and take our money with us. The money that is supplying your military to keep you safe, the money that is helping build your infrastructure, and the money that is supplementing your country because you are too corrupt to get decent bids to produce the oil that will support your country; all of it stops today. I’ll gladly stop risking my life everyday and go home to my family and let you live in your hot, dry, almost third world country. No problem.
But instead, I remained professional, kept my mouth shut and plucked an eye booger out from behind my sunglasses with my middle finger.
Then, with the stench of watered down feces so thick you could taste it, the large crowd of 75 to 100 people, surrounded by dozens of cameras and reporters, slowly made their way across the bridge. With US Army security out in front, Americans placed the first steps across the bridge. It made me smile knowing, that with all their jaw-jacking about how we were not welcome, we still found ourselves out in front, taking photographs, pulling security and taking those very significant, very important, very first steps across the Poo River Bridge.
When it came time to leave, we rubbed it in just a little bit more by driving our good ole American Humvees across the bridge. First.
Recently, while on a supply run to a larger base, I had the opportunity to go to the PX (Post Exchange). Remember folks, retail is about the laws of supply and demand. The little base that I live on…there is no demand for this product. It’s also what we call “soldier proof”. It only takes “one step”.
One of the unique things about being on my particular MiTT (Military Transition Team) is that I work with some of the top people in Iraq. To me, it is interesting to sit in these meetings with these generals and watch them make decisions that affect how the history books in Iraq will be written.
One of these people is a man by the name of Gen (Ret.) Fawsi al-Ali. He is a US citizen that was hired by the government to provide advice to MiTTs and their Iraqi counter-parts. What makes this man interesting is how he became as US Citizen.
He was one of the top generals in Iraq, working directly for Saddam Hussein. He was in charge of nine divisions with over 250,000 soldiers under his command, and he was in the middle of fighting the Iraq/Iran War (1980-1988). In 1986, he was in India attending their National Defense University when he was called to return to Iraq. It was at that point he knew something wasn’t quite right. So, he talked with his wife and his son and asked them if they wanted to go to the United States. They agreed.
He called back to Iraq and told them he would need a couple of weeks to pack his things and ship them back to Iraq. So, as if he were headed back to Iraq, he packed his goods, bought tickets, and prepared as if he was returning home to see Saddam Hussein.
During this time, he noticed a man watching him every day. The man would only leave to go inside and get lunch. One day, during the observer’s lunch break, he and his family headed for Nepal. With nothing but wads of cash to bribe potential trouble-makers along the way, he and his family made their way to the US Consulate in Nepal, where they requested asylum in the United States. Three days later, President Ronald Reagan personally approved his request.
Fast forward to May 2009. Over the next three months, the relationship between he and I would build. As we moved from Iraqi unit to Iraqi unit, I began to realize just how well known he is. In Iraqi military circles, he is somewhat of a “rock star”. Many of the now Generals and Colonels were students of his, or had been under his command when they were young officers. Everywhere we went he was met with sharp salutes, firm handshakes, and the Arabic hug and kiss on the cheek. Everyone called him “Sadee” (Sir).
He became our direct line to the Iraqi Army. We would present him with our ideas; he would support them if they were worthy, and sell them to our counter-parts. Who would in turn, give orders as if those ideas were their own. It was a great relationship.
Then, as fast as he showed up, he left. The war is winding down, and that means less money and less jobs. No matter what we said, no matter what the results, no matter what American General got involved, he had to go. Sometimes “Big Army” doesn’t realize when they have a good thing, and they just let it go.
Fawzi was a teacher as much as he was a student. He was prolific in his thoughts and listened intently. He is the kind of person that you get to know only once in a lifetime. I enjoyed our conversations, and looked forward to our meetings. I never tired of listening to his life stories, or his advice.
As is customary when parting, we gave each other gifts. We gave him a framed certificate thanking him for his service to us. It wasn’t much, but it was all we had. He gave me a set of prayer beads. Most of the men in Iraq carry them. They remind me of Rosary beads. They will stay in my pocket until I leave Iraq. I look forward to the day that I can tell my kids the story of the Iraqi General, the prayer beads, and the plans to beat the terrorists.
With and handshake, a hug, and a “Good-bye Brothers” he was gone.
Last night I called home and was talking to my wife. It was about 11:30 pm her time and our 8 year old daughter was having a hard time falling to sleep. My wife handed the phone to her to talk to me. The first question she asked me was, “How are you doing at war?”
“I am fine. How are you?”
“I didn’t know you were at war.”
“I told you I was going to Iraq.”
“What if you were driving and had to shoot a bazooka at a tank?”
“They aren’t using bazookas here and the bad guys don’t have tanks. We just catch bad guys now.”
“What do they use?”
“Like atonic bombs?”
“It’s atomic, and no, they’re lot smaller.”
“So what did you do today at war?”
“I went on a convoy to get supplies for our team.”
“Oh. Goodnight, I love you. Here’s mom.”
It was “matter of fact”.
It’s not that she didn’t know I was in Iraq. And it’s not like she didn’t know there is a war. It was like the two things never occurred to her simultaneously.
At that point, it occurred to me that I haven’t spent a lot of time at home.
Let me explain; you know you’re not home, but it becomes the norm so you really don’t think about it. The military for our family is a way of life. It’s what we do. We are a blended family, so my kids have always known me in the Army, and my wife’s kids have always known me in the Army. If I stay in the military long enough, the kids we have together will know me as being in the Army.
The last 5 years, I have been home very little. I was in a 9 month long military school. Then I spent a few years stationed with a unit that spent over 200 days per year traveling around the country training other units. When I did get home, it was usually on a weekend. Then, I went to several months of pre-deployment training, and now I am in Iraq. I have been to Iraq before in 2003 and Korea before that.
I realized that in the eyes of the kids, I am the guy that they see once in a while. I am the guy that catches up on chores around the house, and is usually tired. I am the guy that as our kids say “his belly is full of hamburgers and beer”. Then I leave again. No matter if I am traveling around the country, or traveling to another country, to them, it’s just another time that Dad is gone.
Our 10 year old is the only one that showed any outward signs of realizing where I was going. I hadn’t talked to her in several weeks, and then my wife sent me an email that she was crying during class. I was able to call the school and talk to her; it put a Band-Aid on the problem, but who knows what effects it will have on the children over the span of a lifetime.
Our 6 year old doesn’t understand the scope of it, so when we talk, it’s about whatever he is doing at the moment. If something else is holding his interest, he is quick to get off the phone.
Our 13 year old daughter is, well, a 13 year old that is moody whether I am there or not.
Our 19 year old is in the Marine Corps, and has volunteered to go to Afghanistan on a Transition Team (which is what I am on), as a Humvee Gunner. Of course I am proud of him, but I know better. Transition Teams are a tough place to be right now, especially Afghanistan.
Finally, there is my wife; most of the time I take for granted that she is the one who holds it all together.
So, in a couple of years, I will likely retire and try to find some sort of a new kind of norm in our lives. Until that time, being away has become the norm.
Late at night, we are summoned to roll with the Iraqi General and his special operations company. Our convoy, over 30 vehicles strong, rolls out onto the quiet streets of Baghdad, and maneuvers toward a small desert village.
The convoy links up with another of thirty or so vehicles, all loaded with soldiers and their weapons ready to do business. Several Americans dismount and find the Iraqi General. In the middle of his personal security detail, he is barking orders and waving his hands. His orders are to search every house, every closet (even drawers and refrigerators) and announces that we will be here all night and all day, until we find the bad guys. In minutes, vehicles start maneuvering around the village blocking roads, shining lights on houses and knocking on doors.
At 3:00 am, he walks down a small street at the front of the village, as if he is the owner. We follow behind him and listen to his discussion. All around us, Iraqi soldiers scurry around shining lights on rooftops and into windows. They bang on doors and enter homes as cell phones are used as to give orders to platoon leaders around the village. Overhead, the buzz of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) let us know that we are being watched.
In the background, route clearance teams search for IEDs emplaced along main supply routes. Large vehicles in the dark, with dozens of high-powered lights mounted on each vehicle, do their best to see in the nooks and crannies of their environment. It reminds me of a scene out of a sci-fi movie. In a moment of surrealism, I wait for lasers to start shooting at and exploding targets but it never happens.
We reach the end of the road and inspect a hole. Sunken pavement, maybe three meters across. The Iraqi General reaches into the hole and pulls out a piece of plastic, inspects it, and discusses the potential of what it might be, then throws it on the ground. We turn around and go back toward the beginning of the street.
Half way down the street, the commander stops at the village sheiks house. Plastic yard chairs are assembled out front and we sit down, almost as if we are stopping by, just to say hello. After the sheik is awake and dressed the Iraqi General moves inside to discuss business. As dawn breaks, he emerges from inside the home.
We patrol the streets one more time in our Iron Camels. It’s 5:30 am and people are beginning their day, heading to jobs, doing chores within the village trying to get ahead of the hot, overbearing sun.
Before we leave, one man is apprehended. He is accused of stealing property from an Iraq soldier that lives in this village, who is also part of this mission. The Iraqi soldier informs the Iraqi General that he has gone to the police, but they refused to listen to his story. After a brief interrogation, the General orders the Iraqi soldiers to arrest the man. He tells the man to pay 1.5 million Dinars ($1300) and will be released when the Iraqi soldier receives all his money. If he doesn’t pay, he will remain in prison on charges of terrorism. It will be years before a judge can hear his story.
Just as fast as we descended on the village we leave.
Outside, in the yard by our headquarters, stands a lamb; A fluffy, friendly, delicious, looking lamb.
Since my arrival to Iraq, I have developed a taste for this mountainous meal of mutton. The Iraqis cook it just right, long and slow, seasoned to perfection. When it’s done, it rests on a pile of brown rice with cinnamon and white raisins. Layered under the rice is a pile of warm, soft flat bread. Pavlov, you devil you, my salivary glands are working overtime just thinking of this delectable meal.
So, the lamb stands, tied to a tree, nibbling the newly grown grass. She is unwittingly aware of her future demise; I stand there petting her soft, nappy fur. She doesn’t really “baa”. She makes a throaty, guttural, “aaaccchhh”. She has been separated from the herd and deep down I think she knows what fate awaits her.
Soon the lamb will be sacrificed; A tradition as long a time to give thanks for some kind of success in life. (In this case a promotion and/or a religious ceremony). They will likely spill the blood somewhere that is significant in hopes that it will bring a prosperous future for everyone involved. After that they will feast.
They will stand around a table as plate after plate is uncovered in front of them. The delicious aroma of a newly slaughtered and freshly cooked lamb wafts from the meal that hundreds of generations before have experienced. Everyone begins to pull the meat off the bones, balled with handfuls of rice, using torn pieces of bread to keep it all together. There are no forks, spoons or knives. The conversation is light and the meal is filling.
When the meal is complete, fruit is offered as dessert and everyone retires for a cup of chai tea.
Ironically, I talked to my 6 year old son this weekend. When I asked him what he was doing, he said, “I’m watching stupid show called Lamb Chop. I would rather watch Batman Returns.”
In my head I thought, “Don’t worry my son, if Lamb Chop was in Iraq, she would be delicious.”