Monday, July 30, 2007

Generals and Desertion

30 Jul 07
Adnan was a lieutenant at the end of the first Gulf War. After the war the base was summoned to the south of Iraq to help put down the Shiia uprising. Adnan was left in charge of a small contingent of maintainers. Late one afternoon some 100 villagers from a nearby town attacked “Saddam’s forces” (Adnan’s 15 maintainers). Adnan ordered the men to fire their weapons over the villagers heads to push them back. He didn’t want to shoot the villagers at the risk of angering them and starting a full attack. Adnan fired the first round then the rest followed but every villager stopped and fired on Adnan’s position. “Why me?” he thought. He ducked behind a wall and saw a huge mural of Saddam above his head. Seconds later he fell back to another position.

The next day he was ordered to abandon the base by the base general. He got into his civilian clothes and walked home. Several weeks later he was summoned to the base general’s office. There were several other generals in the office and his general demanded to know why he had abandoned the base. Adnan chuckled and said, “because you told me to.” The general disputed the claim and said he had ordered Adnan to attack the forces.

Later the general came back to Adnan and said, “Of course I told you to abandon the base. There was nothing left to defend but if you tell them that, we’ll both go down.” Adnan took the blame for abandoning the base and as punishment was sent to the base in Kirkuk far from his family for several years.

We’ve experienced this same mentality of "blame it on the junior, less experienced guy" quite a bit. At times, the Iraqis even blame a fault or error on us Americans. We don’t speak the language so we can’t contest their stories and their bosses won’t follow up on any stories their told. Losing face is a huge deal for Arabs particularly the higher up they go so no one wants to investigate contentious matters for fear of bringing shame on one another. It’s a widespread Arab phenomenon that it is simply not acceptable to shame one another with the facts. We experience it all the time.

You may remember Major Ghassan who defected to Norway some time ago. I spoke with Adnan about it. Adnan said he called and talked with Ghassan’s wife about Ghassan’s whereabouts after he didn't return to duty. She asked to meet Adnan somewhere but Adnan told her to stay put; he would come to her. She explained to Adnan that Ghassan had fled the country and would not return. He did not take his wife or any of their three children but Adnan thinks he will send for them. Hopefully, he will. There is no penalty for desertion in the Iraqi military. As a matter of fact, service members can quit or be fired at any time though it is rare that one is fired and I can’t imagine how bad one must be to get fired.

Adnan and Ghassan are good friends so I’m surprised that Adnan didn’t know anything about Ghassan leaving beforehand. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Adnan knew (if not helped him) and didn’t say anything.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Range Day

27 Jul 07
For my 5+ month tour we have tried to get to the range to fire a bunch of ammo our predecessors left for us. Today our British friend, Lee, arranged a day at the range for us alongside the RAF Regiment who was qualifying on their weapons. It was no ordinary day though. The Brits were keen to fire their heavy and light weapons also and they had a bunch of ammo from their predecessors as well.

We all met at the range at 0830 and took inventory. We Americans brought our M‑16A2s, Beretta 9mm pistols, and an Iraqi AK-47 with all the ammo we could stand to shoot. The Brits brought their General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) aka “the General”, as well as the SA80A2 with a SUSAT scope and their Browning 9mm pistols and all the ammo we could stand to shoot.

We all took firing positions with our own weapons and for the first time all of us fired our M-16A2s in “burst” mode (USAF range officials only let us fire in semiautomatic). For the second volley we started to switch around and I stayed with the M-16 briefly showing the Brits how to fire it then supervising as they fired off magazine after magazine. I was surprised at how good of a shot they were with just the iron sites (no scope). Shooter after shooter destroyed the target in both semi and burst mode. To a man, when they were done they said, “I want one!”

After several rounds supervising the M-16, Lee arranged for him and me to go to the end of the range where he had 4 x 30 round magazines of SA80 ammo for us to shoot up. We wouldn’t have paper targets so we would be shooting at rocks on the range. It was a great weapon; very compact (“bull and pup” design), smooth and exceptionally accurate. Grp Capt Burt told us later that the SUSAT takes a good shot and makes it great. I want one!

After Lee and I finished with the SAs I moved to the General. I fired some 4 belts of ammo on it. For a heavy machine gun we were surprised what a smooth action machine gun it was. It had very little kick and always came back on target for the next round. Each of us found a spot on the target to bore out a large hole…I put a 4 in hole in the target’s head. After so many people firing it, there was a large collection of ammo beneath the weapon and I rested my arm as I got up…the hot rounds all about burned the dickens out of me.

Finally, I moved to the AK-47. It fires well on semiautomatic but it’s a terrible automatic weapon. When firing on auto, the first round will take down a target but after that it simply jumps all around the place and is nearly impossible to control. The weapon's saving graces are the fact that it’s reliable (it never fails) and it’s so easy to produce. Each of us said we’d take an M-16 or an SA over the AK any day.


26 Jul 07
Lt Diya (not to be confused with my other friend Dhiaa…we call this one “Diya, Jr”) brought a cake in the other day to announce that he is getting married. A few days later one of our maintenance officers, Lt Ali (also not to be confused with my friend Major Ali), came back from his home town and announced the same. They are both in their late 20s and are very excited about getting married.

Earlier in the month we received a Bilingual/Bicultural Advisor (BBA). Ali (because three Ali's in the squadron wasn't enough) is an Iraqi who immigrated to Canada in the early 90s but recently returned to Iraq to be a BBA. Much like Mustafa, Ali found his own wife. However, his brother’s marriage was arranged…sort of.

Ali’s brother had seen the “woman of his dreams” at the university during his senior year. He followed her here and there for several weeks collecting tidbits of information about the girl including her family name, where she lived, what sort of family she came from, etc. Finally, he went to his parents and asked them to go to her family and ask for her hand.

Ali says his family is very respected in his town so no family could say no if someone from his family came to them proposing marriage so his parents went to visit hers. Once there the two mothers went off to the side to discuss the arrangement. Ali’s mother explained that she would like her son to marry the other woman’s daughter. The woman said yes but explained she had four young, single daughters so asked which daughter. Ali’s brother had collected all sorts of information about the girl but never thought to get her first name. The mothers agreed it must be the oldest daughter so settled upon her. His brother was horrified to learn it was not the girl he had dreamt of but the arrangement was made. He had never seen the older sister so went to find her. When he saw her he was satisfied that she was equally as beautiful. Years later he confessed the mix up to his wife but to this day her sister has no idea that the boy had secretly been eyeing her.

In a later discussion Ali talked about the custom of multiple wives and its popularity in Islam. At times Ali said he has become dissatisfied with his own wife but would not take another wife explaining that to bring another woman into their home would be an insult to the woman who has already given so much of her life to him. However, he explained, Shiia Islam allows for temporary/short term marriages that can last for one hour, one week, one year, etc. Both the man and woman must agree to the conditions and term limit of the marriage. Additionally, the woman cannot be a virgin. Furthermore, though the marriage can be over within hours, the woman must agree that she will not take another husband within the same menstruation cycle to ensure there is no question of paternity if the temporary marriage were to result in a pregnancy. Ali is very interested in taking a temporary wife.

Single Iraqi men are really funny when you talk to them about women…they’re actually quite immature. Lt Anees is one of the maintenance officers in the squadron. He is in his late 20s. I asked him if he had a girlfriend. He laughed and giggled like a 13 year old boy afraid of admitting that he might actually like to catch kooties from the right lady… “no, no, Bill [shaking head, looking down and smiling/giggling]. I don’t have a girlfriend.”

We talked about dating customs in Iraq, most of which I’ve already discussed. Anees is waiting for his family to find the right woman. When they do, they will approach her family and arrange the marriage. Then Anees will be allowed to court his wife-to-be. Until then he only hopes for a beautiful wife.

He followed the discussion of Arab/Iraqi customs by saying that he believed the same customs are true in the U.S. He believes the big cities are faster more free but that small towns in the U.S. observed the same customs and traditions where families arranged marriages. I tried hard to convice him that arranged marriages are an extremely rare event (I've only met one Korean-American couple whose marriage was arranged). Frankly, I'm not certain he believed me.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Caught In A Quandary

18 Jul 07
If you haven't figured it out, I’ve come to be quite good friends with many of the Iraqis and they tell me they have great respect for me and what I do for them. Not every day is a picnic working with them (some days are far from it) but we have all agreed that business is business and not to be confused with the person.

I try to help them out in small ways and, of course, I share everything sent to me with them. However, the ones I’m closest with inevitably come to me and ask for assistance in some large manner. It might be something somewhat difficult but achievable. Dhiaa asked me to help him get a used laptop computer and Susan’s family stepped up and helped a ton to get him one (he loves it!). But they often ask for something far more complicated. Abdul Aziz asked me to help get his father a job with the U.S. forces in Baghdad. I have very few contacts outside of the military and even fewer contacts in Baghdad so there was really nothing I could do. Ali also asked me to help get his nephew a job with the Coalition. His nephew was born in California back in the mid-80s while his father was a college professor there so is a U.S. citizen. He wants to improve his English and save money before immigrating to the U.S. Of course he will help the rest of his family immigrate.

None of them have asked any of us to help them immigrate to the U.S. but you can sense they want to ask us. They tell us all the time that they dream of going to the U.S. Recently the Iraqi MoD disallowed all travel outside of Iraq for all Iraqi service members because there was such a huge attrition from guys not returning.

Most of us would love to help any one of them immigrate and the ones we would help would genuinely make great Americans but we’re caught in a quandary. There is a large exodus occurring in Iraq particularly amongst educated Iraqis fleeing to other countries in the Middle East or Europe (i.e., Ghassan fleeing to Norway). Additionally, educated professionals are far more likely to support/work with the Coalition so they become targets by the militia within Iraq. Case in point is the bravery our guys show by simply serving in the Iraqi Air Force. The result, we think, is a large "brain-drain" occurring in Iraq. There are fewer and fewer educated people left in the country to take charge and build a friendly, responsible government. The quandary we perceive is that if we helped our guys immigrate who would rebuild (save?) Iraq?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Gym Time

12 Jul 07
Before I went on R&R I worked with the British to allow our IqAF members to come on the RAF camp to use their gym. First though I wanted to set some ground rules for the Iraqis to make sure they didn't abuse the RAF's generosity or get themselves hurt. Before they could use the gym they had to do a safety brief on how to use the equipment and secondly they would only come to the gym during appointed hours to ensure they didn't conflict with British workout times.

I thought the safety brief would simply be a formality but many of them were seeing gym equipment for the first time. Abdul Aziz drove the point home fore me when he and I went back to the gym in the afternoon to work out. He was obviously worried about hurting himself so did each exercise with the smallest weights he could find for the exercise (essentially the 2.5 lbs weights).

We got on the treadmills and Abdul Aziz asked me to show him again how to start the machine. After I showed him which button to push he pushed the speed button just one time to get the machine started and quickly took his finger off the button. He was at 0.8 kmh and intended to stay there (yes, point 8 kmh). Abdul Aziz is a young, fit guy and by comparison, beginning runners start at 7.5 kmh. Point 8 kmh is literally "little old lady with a walker" speed. It was really funny when Aziz began to jog on the machine at that speed.

I thought eventually he would figure the machine out and speed up. After maybe a minute at 0.8 kmh I encouraged him to speed up...he pushed the button one more time taking him to 0.9 kmh. Again I looked at him and said "more" then reached over and pushed the speed button myself intending to at least get him to a very slow trot pace. His eyes got huge like saucers and at 4.5 kmh he became emphatic, "o....o...okay, Bill. That is enough. Please, Bill." It dawned on me that before that day he had never seen a treadmill much less been on one. Abdul Aziz would have to learn to crawl on the machine before he was confident enough to run on it.

I was pleased yesterday when I went to the gym with Abdul Aziz that he ran at 9.5 kmh. It wasn't fast but it wasn't .8 either.

I finished my run then sat on the side and talked to Lt Col Jasim. Jasim recently came to the squadron from another squadron in the IqAF. We talked about where he was from and his IqAF career. He had just become qualified in the IL-76 when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991. Of course Iraq flew most of the aircraft to Iran and never got them back so Jasim's days flying IL-76s were short lived.

Shortly after GW1 ended, Jasim's uncle was convicted of speaking out against Saddam's regime (sedition) and was subsequently hanged. Additionally, to make an example for others, Saddam had all of the dead man's family members fired if they had government jobs. Jasim was thrown out of the IqAF and made a living the next few years as a construction worker. Needless to say Jasim hated Saddam.

When Jasim came back into the IqAF it had been some 14 years since he had flown but still the IqAF brought him in as a Lt Col and placed him in the premier C-130 program. He was sent to Little Rock AFB for pilot training, however, his language skills weren't good enough and like most former IqAF pilots, his flying skills had atrophied. He struggled in the program and was eventually dropped. When I asked him about the program he was nostalgic..."I met so many good friends in Arkansas and it was so beautiful. I also spent 3 days in Charleston [SC] on my way home and I saw the ocean. It was so nice. Before, I only dream of visiting [the] United States." Of course, we had to talk more in depth about Charleston too.

Monday, July 9, 2007

R&R (pics)

9 Jul 07
Back from R&R...what a great time! I went to the Army's Camp As Sayliyah outside Doha, Qatar. It was a great time.

I took a red eye C-130 down to the USAF base Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar and arrived in the early morning hours. It was a British C-130 and of course those guys were great when I got there. To save me time running around to all the USAF agencies, the Brits offered to store all my equipment, my weapons, and ammo. They took me to billeting and when the billeting manager asked if the wanted to put me with them they said, "sure, we're much closer to the office and it will be easier for him." I love the British!...very accommodating and everything is easy with them.

I slept for a few hours then got up to go take my final test for the class I'm in but the test center was closed so I called for a ride to the R&R camp.

I arrived at As Sayliyah around 1400 and after inprocessing, headed straight for the gym. I heard they do massages there and I figured I wanted to start my R&R off right. Funny enough, there were several rough looking soldiers there getting manicures and pedicures. I signed up for the massage then joined the dudes for a manicure and pedicure (not that there's anything wrong with that). Money well spent on all three accounts!

For dinner I hit Chilis there on base...the military has been inviting bigger and bigger chains onto their overseas bases to give us a little bit of home overseas. We had Chilis in Japan and they've obviously expanded to Qatar. Some of you know I'm a Mexican food freak. I killed some fajitas and chips and salsa. Later that night I went to the pub and cashed in on my 3 beer/day ration.

I was assigned quarters in a 10 man room...5 bunk beds. Because I was the newest guy in, there were no bottom bunks left so I had to take a top bunk. The next day I met the guy in the bottom bunk. He was with another guy with a University of South Carolina shirt on. I asked the guy if he was from SC. He said he was from Eastover (30 min from Sumter?). I told him I was from Sumter and stationed at Shaw. Then my bunk mate chimed in that he was from Sumter. Capt Mike McLeod is a '94 graduate of Sumter High and is currently deployed to Kuwait. There was several 100 (maybe a 1000?) people at As Sayliyah on R&R so I had to laugh...what are the odds of two Sumter boys ending up as bunk mates in Qatar? What a small world!

Doha is the "new Dubai" of the Middle East. Qatar is a small, wealthy oil nation that has begun to secure itself a spot as a banking and trading center for the Middle East. They recently hosted the Asian Games (like our Pan American Games or a mini-Olympics) which spurred a ton of construction. There were some 30+ sky scrapers that were either newly completed or almost complete but had not even been thought of until they got the Asian Games. They are also building an island community like the ones Dubai built in the shape of a palm tree and the globe. The Doha island is called "The Pearl."

I signed up for a sponsor so I could go off base. At about 2 p.m. three USAF guys came thru the USO on As Sayliyah and picked up me and another guy for dinner on the town. We went to a gold market then a mall before a great dinner at the new Four Seasons, Doha. It was pricey but I was okay with that.

After dinner we headed back to the camp and the guys dropped me off at the USO. That night they were hosting a concert by the Atlanta band Five Star Iris ( for one of several shows planned for troops deployed all around the Middle East including some really austere camps. Any band that signs up to come out to the field and entertain the troops especially in some of the really remote locations we are nowadays is outstanding in my book and Five Star Iris put on a great show for us. The only thing missing was more beer!

The next day was the 4th of July...I took the day easy and celebrated with, well, three beers at the USO. I met up with a few guys I knew that are in the same command advising Iraqis at Kirkuk AB. We all signed up for the cultural tour the following day.

The cultural tour was a great experience. We started at the camel market where there were rows and rows of camel stalls. You won't see these camels racing around the desert though. These are eating camels and all are purchased for slaughter/consumption. Several of us commented that it reminded us of the state fair livestock show. After the camel market we went to the farmer's market. Again, it looked and smelled just like a farmer's market in the US. Next we started to press into the city and made our way to the Old Iranian Souq ("sook" It was very cool and looked like a village out of New Mexico. The highlight was a shop where they sell hawks and hawking supplies...Arabs are often very big into hawking. They work to train hawks for some 10 months to hunt other birds and return them to their masters.

We hit the Gold Souq next followed by lunch at an Iranian restaurant on the waterfront. Lunch also included stopping at a "hooka" shop to smoke hooka pipes. There a waiter took our orders and an attendant came by periodically to feed our pipes and ensure we had plenty of hooka(?) to smoke. I had apple flavor which came in a solid coal/ember but wasn't harsh at all like tobacco when you smoke it. We smoked our hookas then back onto the bus.

Our last two stops were malls. What surprised me was the contrast of styles amongst the women. Most of the women dressed in the black abbaya but some were in stylish jeans and tank tops or some top showing off their midriff. As I studied the "ninjas" (as our Jordanian guide called them) in their abbayas I noticed that many of them had on jeans or some colorful outfit underneath. I had heard the women would often wear western outfits under their abbayas but hadn't seen it first hand until now. We headed back to the base in the early evening.

The next couple of days I just flopped around the camp taking in some of the shopping on base and hanging out in the USO. The USO is exceptionally well done there and it was a really comfortable place to hang out and to be honest, I didn't want to do much more than that.

On the last day I headed back to Al Udeid to look for a flight back to Basrah with the British again. I took my final test for ACSC and put that beast behind me then headed back to Basrah in the early evening arriving in time to make dinner...chicken original.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

PSYOPS (pic)

2 Jul 07
The British Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) guys from MND-SE recently came to see us about a commercial campaign (or "advert" as the Brits call it) they have been running on the Iraqi Armed Forces called the "Sons of Iraq" series. They started with a 30 second commercial filmed in an Arabic style showcasing the Army then the Navy and Border Patrol. Scifi was on leave so I met with them about an IqAF commercial.

The Iraqis are very reluctant to be seen in uniform or to have their faces shown in pictures for western newspapers, etc. They are concerned about being associated with the Coalition and killed. The earlier commercials showed the faces of many soldiers/sailors and the intent was to do the same for the IqAF. I thought the commercial was a great idea but told the Brits I thought Col Sami and the sqdn leadership would very weary of it so they would need their best salesman to pitch the campaign. They assured me they got the same reception from all three previous commercials. I took them to see Col Sami and he echoed what I already told them but we convinced him to ask the pilots if any of them would do it.

Two weeks later the Brits came back and we met with Col Sami again. To everyone's surprise, one of the guys stepped forward and said he would do it. The Brits spent the next two days filming our guy in various scenes around the sqdn. Other guys crowded around as the shot each scene. Several other guys also got into the scenes though only showed their backs or their side. Only one other guy also showed his face.

Scifi coordinated a formation flight and the cameraman flew with him to get footage of our Iraqi pilots flying over an Iraqi Army convoy, oil fields, power lines, etc. The dialogue was to the effect of "Iraqi pilots working together with the Iraqi Army, protecting Iraq's oil wealth, and securing our infrastructure."

When they were done with the commercial the PSYOPS guys came back and showed the finished product to a room full of our officers. They all loved the commercial and clamored to get a copy. We asked the second guy if he was ok with showing his face. He was very certain in his response, "yes, I want to show my face. I am not afraid. I am proud to serve the Iraqi Air Force."

They also took still photos for use on billboards and posters. Our guy's face will be pasted all around the south of Iraq.

Scifi took a copy of the commercial and several posters with us to the Baghdad conference we attended. Our leadership loved the campaign and they all wanted copies of both the commercial and posters. They are working to get the commercial shown nation-wide.

The second guy only appears in the TV commercial. He is a maintainer so I had regular contact with him. I didn't have much contact with the central character prior to the commercial but I was genuinely proud of both guys. They are literally risking their lives by appearing in this commercial so my hat is off to them. The commercial started airing while we were in Baghdad. Scifi and I were relieved to see both guys still alive when we got back.

4th of July (pics)

1 Jul 07
Several weeks ago the British Entertainment Committee approached us and asked us if they could throw us a 4th of July party. Of course we said yes but I was surprised and had to ask "you do know the significance of the 4th of July, don't you?" They assured us they knew but that it would be a good theme for a party. The only catch was the Brits are allowed to have two beers once a week on Saturday nights. Since the 4th falls on a Wed they asked if we minded having the party on the 30th of June so they could have a beer in our honor (they know we aren't allowed to drink so they were going to have one for us). Of course we were delighted.

As word of the party started to spread, one of the Brits kidded us at dinner one night that they were all going to come to the party with red coats and muskets. I couldn't resist asking, "how'd that work out for you last time?"

He said, "yeah, but you're out numbered."

I replied, "we were then too."

In the late afternoon they organized a "softball" tournament which only resembled softball but was more like a cross between cricket and another game they play called "rounders." We showed up expecting softball so had to watch a bit to understand the game. There were four bases and a home plate. Instead of a 4-sided infield like American softball, they play rounders with a 5-sided infield. It was odd asking who would be our "fourth baseman" as we took the field.

There wasn't much rhyme or reason to the batting and everything was considered a hit. When a batter hit the ball he/she may or may not choose to run to first base. If he ran he risked being thrown out but if he remained in the batter's box he could continue hitting unless he hit a pop fly into the outfield which was caught in the air. There was no foul ball territory so every ball hit could be considered in play. Several times guys intentionally hit the ball into the parking lot to score a homerun or would safely run to first base on a foul tip that went behind the catcher and out into traffic on the main road. It was their game so we played along.

Of course the Brits are huge on soccer ("football") and it permeates into every sport they play. They were more likely to stop ground balls with a quick kick than to use their gloves. As a matter of fact, most of them abandoned the gloves and played barehanded.

Later in the evening they hosted a cookout and served burgers, brats, coleslaw, etc. They decorated the pub in red, white and blue bunting, streamers, balloons, top hats and all sorts of 4th decorations including a huge U.S. flag. It was really well done. One of our guys is collecting the stuff to reuse at American hosted event on the 4th.

Later we went around to each Entertainment Committee member as well as the Group Captain to personally thank them for putting the party together. We told them how much we genuinely appreciated the gesture and that they had done far more than we expected. It was a really fun event.