Out of Iraq, But Not Done

I’m in Kuwait, sort of on my way back home. I got in last night, and since then I’ve been fighting with terrible internet connections trying to coordinate meeting up with my next assignment. Around 9:45 a.m. I had some luck, and now I’m sitting in an internet cafe making the update rounds.

My last day in Iraq was punctuated by a huge rainstorm, and a vomiting man sitting next to me in a C-130. What a way to end things.

The way out was interesting. After just a few days at Shocker, I’d come to really like it and the people there. Both the officers and the enlisted men (they were all men, the only women I saw were contractors) were friendly and hospitable. The sergeant I was traveling with said Shocker had a good feel because it was on the periphery. No one asked to see my ID, because with just over 100 soldiers it’s pretty hard to miss the guy who needs a haircut.

Contrast that with Camp Delta, where security scrutinized my paperwork every time. Which, by the way, is hilarious, because I know for a fact some of those who looked at it couldn’t read it.

I needed razorblades, so I went to the PX, or post exchange, to pick some up. The man guarding the door with an AK-47 took a few minutes to review my paperwork, and then he let me in. I bought my razor and went back out to grab my backpack, which I wasn’t allowed to bring in. I was waiting for someone, so I decided to chat with the guard.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Uganda,” he said, with a thick accent.

“How do you like it here?” I asked.

He tilted his head sideways like a bird.

“Do you like it here?” I asked again.

“Cold,” he said.

I got that the money isn’t that good, and that he has a child with a girlfriend, but that was all we could communicate to each other in 5 minutes of talking and gesturing.

So how much did he get out of my Department of Defense letter? I have to wonder…

But here, I’m back in a sea of Americans, with a friendly New Hampshire escort taking me to lunch. What a difference a border makes.

I’m not done, but things are winding down. I’ve got a story to record, and then one more to do on this unit, the 197th Fires Brigade, before I head back. The window is definitely closing, and it’s been one hell of a ride.

Rainy Day Blues

Well, planes are grounded, so I’m not going anywhere for a bit. I’d like to be on my way to visiting the 197th, but a storm blew in last night so strong I thought it was artillery. And I wasn’t alone — I heard an officer saying the same thing.

So for now I’m hanging out in an airport, waiting for my ride. Not every day in Iraq is exciting…

Moving On…

After a few days here at Camp Shocker, I’m catching a convoy and headed to Kuwait. There I’ll meet up with the 197th Fires Brigade, the National Guard unit out of New Hampshire. It’ll be another chance for me to connect with a bunch of New Hampshire soldiers.

But as a final farewell to this little corner of Iraq, I got up early today and shot some photos. They almost make me want to stay…

How Do I Feel?

It’s both disconcerting and hopeful here. Lots of soldiers have expressed real concerns about the future of Iraq and how it will survive once the U.S. leaves. I can see that, just because of how much the Americans are doing. But at the same time at the border Iranians were streaming over to visit holy places in Iraq for Ashura. They aren’t terrorists, they’re pilgrims. Lieutenant Colonial Mario Perez, who is partnered with the authorities at the crossing, said there was a coalition of 400 plus Muslims who had come to march in solidarity with the Iraqis to show violence will not deter them. It isn’t safe, he said, but it isn’t a war zone. It’s only a few people.

I have a skewed perspective here, it’s vital to make a note of that. I am in a place where everyone takes a gun to dinner, and you don’t leave the wire without a helmet, vest and eye protection. But it isn’t all violence. There are developments and positive news. Behind the wire it’s hard to notice because insurgents are still plotting ways to kill Americans, but it is only a small group of people. The Iraqis are working to build a safe country, only with limited assets and a cancerous group always working to undermine them.

I have no idea if it will work, but I do know I’d like to come back after it does. I’d like to sit down with these people, all of whom I have met have been wonderful and kind. I have hope as well as fear for this country, but I see something here worth fighting for. Most Iraqis do as well.

More of the Random…

They don’t have paper towels at COP Shocker — you have to dry your hands with toilet paper.

There are camouflage Bibles available, I’m assuming for free.

There are signs everywhere warning soldiers to mind secret documents to avoid being the next wikileaker. (CORRECTION: I was informed that these notes just use Wikileaks as a reference. It’s about not giving away mission-specific information or base information that might endanger them or anyone else here. I needed an Army translator to understand the note!)

There are multiple copies of one of Bill O’Reilly’s book on one of the shelves here, like a case was shipped in for the soldiers.

The food is good, particularly breakfast. And it’s all you can eat. Soldiers live for mealtimes, because here there are no weekends.

Call of Duty — this is the strangest thing — I have seen and heard more soldiers shooting and killing digital enemies than I could have imagined. There’s a certain irony in soldiers relaxing on their deployment by trying to shoot things.

There are dogs in between the outer wall of the base and the barbed wire barrier 50 feet out. Lots of dogs. Somehow last night two made it up onto the wall. I couldn’t get my camera out in time, unfortunately.

There are minefields all around from the Iran-Iraq War. As the oil companies come in to drill they hire people to clear the mines.

The bathroom trailer doesn’t have potable water. There are big warnings not to brush your teeth on all the mirrors.

Every Iraqi I met today was incredibly gracious. Of course I was with a heavily armed group of soldiers, so that may have weighed into it.

There are spray hoses in the toilet stalls, if you so choose to use it. This is the first base I’ve seen that.

There was an old bunker on a hill near the border crossing, again from the Iran-Iraq War. A lieutenant colonial told me the locals now use it as a toilet.

The governments of Iraq and Iran allow cross-border trade, but not for trucks to go across. The goods are all taken out of the truck in one country and put in a truck in the other country by hand.

The mountains in Iran have snow on them, clearly visible from the border. They jut out of the desert as Iraq ends.

The Border

If you ever want to see an amazing place, let me recommend the border. I spent the day outside the wire, checking out what Lieutenant Colonial Smith, a New Hampshire soldier, does for work. This is his second deployment to Combat Outpost Shocker (that’s right, Shocker — and yes, that’s where it comes from…) We went to a port of entry, which he had jurisdiction over last deployment, and a border outpost, which he has jurisdiction over now. I shared chai tea with the outpost commander and got to stand six feet outside of Iran. It was a stunning experience, talking with truck drivers and border guards, watching the pilgrims come from Iran. The sound was fantastic as well; I can’t wait to put this one together.

Here are some photos from the day. The audio should be along soon as well. Enjoy!

More Pictures and a Taste of Audio

It’s been hard to get any good shots from the back of the Rhino, and I spent most of yesterday editing audio, but I got a few things here. These are from FOB Shocker, where I am now. Not real exciting, but at least you can see what it’s like here.

Also, I was collecting sound for a piece I’m working on about convoys, and I happened to get this story. I thought it went along with my earlier post (WARNING: Explicit Language).

Leader

It’s amazing the things soldiers see.