Saturday, June 30, 2007

Baghdad Finale (pics)

29 Jun 07
Just back from what should be my last trip to Baghdad. This one was a bit different from all the others in that I was actually there for work vice professional education. Scifi and I attended a conference in the International Zone (the “IZ”…aka the “Green Zone”).

We had to take a helicopter ride over from Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) to a landing zone in the IZ near the US Embassy. It was an interesting ride but it was over entirely too quickly. From the air, it looks like any city anywhere in the world; people were walking and driving everywhere. I only saw large concentrations of people at checkpoints.

Scifi pointed out a massive mosque that was under construction and it was encouraging to see large scale construction in the city. When we landed, however, he explained that Saddam began the mosque during the regime and intended it to be the largest mosque in the world. They were well into the project when Saddam learned another Arab country was building a larger mosque so Saddam simply canceled all construction on the Baghdad mosque. It looked like it would have been amazing but obviously was being built for the wrong reason.

We stayed in tents at the Embassy which was Saddam’s Presidential Palace in Baghdad. We were allowed to roam the Embassy grounds freely. I expected gaudy and over the top but the compound was actually very nice. We even took advantage of the opportunity to swim in Saddam’s pool.

The IZ is in the middle of Baghdad and is simply a section of the city that has more stringent security than the rest of Baghdad to ensure security for Coalition personnel. There are apartment complexes within the IZ which house everyday Iraqis that come and go thru the checkpoints.

The security checkpoints were interesting. At first glance the guards look like Iraqis but when they speak to you it’s in Spanish. All of the checkpoints are managed by USMC personnel but are actually manned by the firm Triple Canopy which hired an army of Peruvians to man the gates. At one point we needed directions to our destination. It was another of those surreal moments when, in downtown Baghdad, I asked for and received directions in Spanish from the Peruvian guard.

As we left the guard post we walked past the bombed out hulk of Believer’s Palace. It was across the street from Saddam’s Palace and looked like a palace on the outside but it was actually a chemical protection shelter Saddam had built to protect him against a chemical attack from Iran. The Coalition supposedly named it “Believer’s Palace” when someone saw the palace and proclaimed “I believe one more JDAM/bomb would have finished it.”

There were civilians everywhere and at dinner one night I sat across from a State Dept employee. I asked if the majority of civilians were State Dept employees (considering it was the Embassy it seemed obvious). He said the majority were actually, Dept of Agriculture, FBI, and Dept of Interior and that there were relatively few State Dept folks.

Scifi had an additional day for the conference so several of us had the day off and took advantage to shop a little. One of the guys and I ran a 5K that was scheduled for the day after we left but the sports director said he’d give us the T-shirt if we ran the race. The route was from the Embassy down to the gravel road along the Tigris/Dijila River. The T-wall is some 20 feet high there so there was no chance of seeing the river.

The last night we were scheduled out on a Blackhawk helicopter but got weather canceled so we walked down to the Rhino Runner terminal to see if we could get a ride back to BIAP via the Rhino Runner (essentially a super armored vehicle). The Rhino ride was interesting and we rode past the Iraqi Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Victory Over Iran monument which is the avenue with the crossed sabers you often see from the regime when Saddam would review military parades. Once we left the IZ we headed down Route Irish to BIAP and arrived in the wee hours.

The following day I got up early and caught an IqAF C-130 down to Basrah. Enroute we stopped at Talil AB to pick up some Iraqi passengers. As we took back off I saw the Great Ziggurat of Ur built by the Sumerians over 4000 years ago. At one time, Ur was the oldest know city in the world (and may well still be).

Back in Basrah by 1500…great trip.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Sather 5K

23 Jun 07
Got up and ran the Sather AB 5K today. It was mostly gravel so the dust was bothersome but it was a good way to start the day.

One point on the course took us by the flightline. I noticed a C-17 parked backwards on the ramp and several Stryker fighting vehicles assembled not far behind it with their company flag unfurled. In front of the Strykers were several white bread trucks. As I got closer I noticed and American flag in the window then realized what the scene was—a repatriation ceremony that was about to begin. Though they hadn’t formed up yet I remembered the guy at Basrah that ran past the procession and how disrespectful it seemed so I stopped at the nose of the vehicle, came to attention, saluted then carried on with the race.

The guy behind me told me later that he thought I was giving up when I passed the hearse and that he would pass me when he realized what was happening. He said at that point I gained the spiritual edge and he knew he wouldn’t catch me. I didn’t ask what he had done but it didn’t matter; it just seemed disrespectful to not show respect in some way. I ended up winning the race with a time of 21:45…obviously there weren’t a lot of serious runners. The guy behind me thought I was a 20-something and that he would win the over-30 category…he was disappointed to hear I was two years older than him.

For winning the race they gave me a T-shirt but the only sizes they had were 2XL…I haven’t seen a lot of 2XL runners win races but I took the shirt anyway. I also bench pressed 225 lbs while I was there an they gave away T-shirts for that as well.

Trip to Kirkuk (pics)

21 Jun 07
On the road again this time traveling with Scifi. We caught a ride up to Baghdad with the British then hopped on the Iraqi Cessna Caravan headed to Kirkuk. Scifi was going up to attend a squadron activation ceremony there and needed a travel partner. He and I have to attend a conference in the International Zone ("the IZ") in downtown Baghdad in a few days so it made sense for me to accompany him to Kirkuk. Our sister advisory team at Kirkuk has grown to the point of achieving squadron status so we went for that ceremony. We're back in Baghdad now.

Kirkuk is in Kurdistan and is a USAF base with a huge Army presence and some IqAF. There is quite a bit of fighting that goes on in the region but there are few attacks against the base itself. One night Scifi and I heard what we learned later was a car bomb in the distance in the city followed by emergency vehicle sirens. Several times a day automatic weapons fire is heard on base as US Army convoys preparing to depart the base fire their weapons into berms at the base checkpoints just before leaving the base. They fire a couple of bursts to ensure their weapons are working properly before heading off base.

The British at Basrah are great but we've noticed that within the base, very few carry weapons. Everyone on our team carries a weapon everywhere we go. At Kirkuk every American is carrying at least one weapon and many carry two or three depeding on their weapon cofiguration and scarcely an Iraqi can be found. There is no jeopardy to our Second Amendment here.

We had quite a bit of time off while I was there so one of the Kirkuk advisors took me on a tour. I had seen what I thought was an O-2 Vietnam-era observation plane when we flew in so I asked to go see them. I found out it was actually the a Cessna 337--the civilian version of the O-2. The Army has contracted out one aspect of airborne reconnaissance to a civil company. The Florida company, AirScan Inc, put an MX-15 forward looking infrared sensor on the aircraft and provides an airborne eye in the sky for their troops on the ground.

Scifi and I also took advantage of the opportunity to go to the pool while we were there. The lifeguards on duty at the pool were civilian contractors. One was working on a masters degree via distance learning and was saving huge money for the return home.

I'm always surprised by the number of civilians here and one of the Airscan pilots remarked that the civlian companies fighting in this war would be here long after the US military pulls out. He cited Kosovo as an example. I was deployed to France and Italy during the build up for and initial phase of that conflict back in 1998-1999. As far as I was aware, only a few NATO troops were in the area. He said the civilian companies were only recently leaving the doubt headed to Iraq.

As we were leaving Kirkuk today the USAF leadership in the advisory sqdn was discussing an event which occured earlier in the day. Two of the Iraqi-Arab pilots were driving to the base from Baghdad and stopped at a checkpoint. The checkpoint was manned by the Pesh Merga (the Kurdish militia) and the militiamen told the two pilots the region was only for Kurds and told them to turn back. The two pilots protested and the scene got heated. Eventually shots were exchanged from both sides and apparently both pilots were injured and taken to a hospital.

In an USAF sqdn, the sqdn commander of those two guys would have spent the rest of the evening at the hospital sitting vigil for his troops and doing whatever he could for their families. As it was, the Iraqi sqdn commander came out to the acft and flew Scifi and I down to Baghdad. I don't think that's indicative of Iraqis or their IqAF leadership and I'm absolutely certain our IqAF sqdn commander, Col Sami, would have been at the hospital with his troops.

I pass a lot of care package stuff along to Adnan to give the maintainers and he recently brought me a gift to thank me. It was a laser figurine of the Malwiyah...the Great Mosque of Samarra. It is very nice and I appreciate the gesture. As luck would have it, today on the flight back to Baghdad we flew right over the Malwiyah at about 8000 feet. Several of the guys asked the Iraqi pilot if he knew what the tower was but he had no idea until I told him it was the Malwiyah of Samarra then he told us briefly about the tower. Essentially, Malwiyah means spiral and it was one of their caliphs attempts to get closer to God. It was very cool to see in person.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Manners & Mustaches (pics)

11 Jun 07
Off in Baghdad again. Got to fly up in the Iraqi Air Force’s newest aircraft--a modified Cessna Caravan. It’s a great little aircraft and has a large forward looking infrared and video pod the Iraqis will use for reconnaissance. It came down from the Kurdish north to pick up one of our colonels. Two of us needed to go to Baghdad so we asked him if we could get a ride. We took a longer route to get to Baghdad this time so the colonel could play with some of the gizmos. Very cool way to see the country.

I came back today on an Iraqi C-130. Our first stop was the U.S. base at Habbaniyah on the edge of Lake Habbaniyah outside Fallujah. Habbaniyah was the old British garrison established in Iraq after World War I to protect the provincial government. It was the largest of several bases in Iraq and was key to protecting the country.

Scifi returned from his R&R in the Caribbean some weeks ago and when he came back he had shaved the caterpillar that had inhabited his lip for the first half of his tour. The Iraqis are big on mustaches. At our training prior to deploying they advise us to grow a mustache if we can…that it projects “machismo” and respect to Arabs.

When he got back Scifi looked 15 yrs younger and several of us didn’t recognize him. Adnan commented that the American advisors always grow a mustache when they come to Iraq but shave it when they go home to visit their families. He said he thinks American women must not like mustaches. He went on to ask why they bother at all to grow a mustache…in short, why don’t we just “be ourselves” while we’re here?

Someone asked about manners and Arabs (i.e., it’s disrespectful to show them the bottoms of your feet, don’t use your left hand when eating, etc.) and I think peculiarities in and sensitivity to Arab manners/mannerisms is very much exaggerated. I’ve seen them sit in all sorts of positions and have seen them eat with their left hands.

In my travels all around the world and living in Japan, I believe good manners are universal. Say please, thank you, yes/no sir. Be respectful of your hosts...get to know them and try to understand their customs/courtesies. They will recognize that you are being respectful and they will overlook petty transgressions like where your foot is pointed.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

"Dead People Walking"

5 Jun 07
Our sqdn interpreter, Mustafa, didn’t come to work today. He called Adnan to say that his cousin had been killed and he was going to see the family. Adnan described the country as a lawless place where people kill one another and no questions are asked and no one is prosecuted. He said a friend of his family described Iraqis as dead people walking around…they all expect to die soon.

Adnan said the U.S. needs to leave Iraq and let the thugs have the place and eventually one of them will wrestle power and put all of the other parties into submission. I asked him, “would you leave with us and come to the U.S. if we left?”

He said, “I am Iraqi, where would I go?”

“You’ve been working with the Coalition. You will be a target.” I explained.

Resolved to this fate he said, “Yes and I must die.”

“Just like that? You are willing to stay here and die?” I asked.

“I have to die and so will many people who have been working with the Coalition. But we must die for Iraq to get better. We need someone strong to kill all of the other bad guys and to take over the country. Then we will have peace.” He said.

It was one of the more depressing discussions we’ve had.

Irish Whiskey

4 Jun 07
Whiskey invited us to another cook out Saturday night. I think claims of British cooking being bland and uninteresting are very exaggerated (though a curry dish is on the menu every night). Those guys cooked up some of the best burgers, chicken, and bratwursts I’ve ever had. But not just that, we eat very well each meal in the chow hall. We joke that they couldn't mess up chicken if they tried.

Anyway, it’s always interesting to listen to the accents at these gatherings to figure out where someone is from. We spoke with one girl whose accent was different from the others but I was thinking too confined to the main British homeland and guessed she was from Scotland but she said she was from “the north of Ireland” (when there are that many accents in one place it’s hard to single them out).

I asked, “The Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland?”

With a Cheshire grin she said, “I’m from Belfast in the north of Ireland.”

I had a quizzical look and was thinking through the geography of the island. She could see the confusion and added “I’ve just given you a lot of information there.”

Then it dawned on me what her point was. In 1921 the British partitioned Ireland into two parts and granted the Republic of Ireland sovereignty in the south. The Irish in Northern Ireland have never truly accepted British rule, however, because of the large Protestant/British population in Northern Ireland, the British refuse to give back the entire island. The British have only recently agreed to share power with the leading Irish party and former terrorist network Sinn Fein (“Sh-en Fain”) whose ultimate goal is a unified Irish nation.

I also thought Whiskey was Scottish but when I asked him he said “I’m from Northern Ireland…Belfast.” In light of the previous discussion I figured Whiskey had also given me a lot of information but in a far less intentional manner.

Sometime later in the evening the Irish girl asked me where I was from. I couldn’t resist, “I’m from the south of Carolina”…touché!

Whiskey told us about one of his “mates” that was killed in Afghanistan. It is a Royal Marine tradition to throw a party for their fallen comrades. The entire unit gets dressed in their service dress uniform for the party and they auction off all of his military items for exorbitant amounts. Whiskey bought the man’s service dress neck tie for £350 (about $700). All told, they raised £30,000 ($60,000) to give the man’s family in addition to the insurance and any other claims afforded to them.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Baghdad Pt III

31 May 07
Back from my third trip to Baghdad to take another test. One of the Dans and I went up Sunday. Dan is replacing Curtis who has been at our Baghdad operation for a month. Dan will spend a month there then back here. We were set up to fly in a RAF C-130 up there and reported to the terminal tent at 1815 (6:15 pm). When the acft landed they had maintenance problems and had to send for maintenance to fix the acft. The problem was all of their maintenance is down in Qatar so they had to fly the guy up to fix the acft. We didn’t take off out of Basrah until 0315 (3:15 a.m.).

On climb out after takeoff the pilots did a rapid ascent to quickly gain altitude. We pulled 1-2 G’s (gravitational force which pushes you into your seat and makes you feel heavy) getting up there followed immediately by him leveling the acft off in which we pulled 1-2 negative G’s (you become weightless and try to rise out of your seat).

As usual, I stayed on Sather AB with the guys deployed up there from Basrah. Sather is named after the first USAF airman killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Staff Sergeant Scott Sather was an Air Force combat controller (one of our special forces components) who had already completed successful tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan was killed in Iraq in Apr 2003.

I went to take the third test for this class we have to do as a major. The system for ordering the test is kind of screwy so when I accessed the system it let me request the wrong test…test 4. At the end of each test I’ve taken I’ve wondered where the material I was just tested on came from and this test was no different. I told the proctor that was not at all the material I was expecting and we accessed the system again to confirm it was the right test. After several minutes we figured out I had requested, taken, and passed test 4 as opposed to test 3. So I sat back down and took another test…bad thing is now I have NO motivation to study for tests 5 and 6.

After the tests I made a run over to the BX at Camp Liberty. We follow the perimeter road around the base past Abu Graib and several smaller camps. All of the camps including Liberty are flooded with troops for the ongoing troop surge. In addition to the troops there are motor pools everywhere filled to capacity with vehicles. Many of the vehicles have attachments for disarming IEDs, retrieving other disabled vehicles, plowing thru terrain, busting thru walls, etc. Most of the vehicles are armored but everything that wasn’t armored got armored added on. Some had designed armor while others had improvised plates to put on doors or fencing to cover windshields. So many vehicles had crude, add-on armor it reminded me of something out of The Road Warrior.

I flew back home with the IqAF again. They were coming down to do a troop rotation from Basrah to Baghdad. Col Abdul Hussein was also on the flight. He had been in Baghdad flying with our operation there. He was returning to Basrah with the monthly salaries for the guys in Basrah. He had a trash bag full of Iraqi dinars…it looked like something from a Hollywood drug operation.

Abdul Hussein has a very unique style. He wears a white scarf with his uniform and wears his flight suit pants legs tucked into his boot. He looks like a Kamikaze pilot. I asked him about his appearance and he explained that he admired the courage of Japanese pilots of World War II and had fashioned his look after them.

Ali met me at the acft when we landed. He had finally been paid and was like a kid bouncing around the flightline. I’m sure that was an immense relief to him after no pay for several months. And not only did he get paid but he got a ride back to Baghdad on the IqAF C-130 that night so didn’t have to make the 12 hour overland drive to Baghdad and navigate the 40 some checkpoints along the road.