Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Toastmaster Wore A Pistol

Tables filled with Hot barbecued beef, chicken and pork spewed delicious steam into the chilled Baghdad air as small groups of friends gathered for the New Years Eve Feast. In a small parking area, decorations were hung, a small d.j. stand was prepared and plastic tables with colorful cloth on top were shaken out. Music and speaker tests made for strange background noise as I moved through the crowd of around 50 people from all over the world. Like a fly on the wall, I listened as I moved catching glimpses of lives from places like Fiji, Hondurus, Phillipines, Ukraine, Lebanon, India, Nepal and the list goes on. Stories about old swimming holes and missions gone bad mixed with laughter and the passing of large cans of Heineken almost made standing in the middle of this broken, mixed up country seem normal.

At 8 o'clock, the ceremony began with the Toastmaster, a warrior from a nearby country, dressed in camo pants, dress boots, a flak vest with no plates, a starched white shirt and a black bowtie coordinated nicely with a standard issue sidearm opened the party with a short, hearfelt speech. We remembered our friends who had fallen in 2005 first. A moment of silence was held and heads were bowed in reverence as each of us, I'm sure, contemplated those difficult moments from last year when news of a friend lost touched our ears and shattered an otherwise normal day. Speeches from members of senior management followed, each laced with the talk of Family. Our Families at home and our extended Family here. Each one critical in our survival. Although we all came from different places around the globe, we rely on each other for support and guidence daily. The younger or new members of our family learn quickly, the lessons of our elders and the elders and experienced are eager to share their helpful knowledge with those in need. When one of us is down, our family, in small numbers or large, is there to support us and bring us back to a viable state.

After the speeches came the food. It was late for dinner and the wonderful smell of the food had everyone in a frenzy once we were given the go-ahead to eat. Barbecued meat, pasta dishes, both sweet and spicey, skewered shrimp, dumplings and an array of deserts from around the world were hastily put to plate and eaten. Laughter and compliments flowed during the meal through shivering hands and visible breath. Games followed and prizes were given to the winners. 35 years old and musical chairs is still a hilarious riot to play!! Everyone won in the end whether it was taking home a doorprize or just being able to laugh off the days events. The party broke up around eleven as the impending New Year approached. Some people strayed off in groups to finish off their drinks together, husbands and wives (Yes, they are here in teams) went off to spend their midnights either cuddling or arguing, and the rest of us went off to our rooms with a smile from the nights events.

I spoke to my Wife when I returned to my room. I miss her dearly as well as my children but the fact that I'm surrounded by so many great people in the exact same situation makes it all bearable. I finished my conversation just before midnight. When the bells tolled their last call for 2005, I stood smoking the days last ciggerette and watched and listened as the city erupted with gunfire of varying size and strength. A falling bullet entered the hood of the vehicle I stood by so I retreated to my room. As I closed my eyes, I thought of the evening and how the feeling of something new coming had filtered through the crowd. Whether it be the collapse of a broken country or the rise of a new arab empire, only time will tell.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanksgiving in Taji

So much for a line in the sand. I drew it and got pulled out for greener and much bigger pastures over 50 days ago. I'm in Taji now. Some say it's the biggest base in Iraq. Most times, it feels like it. I arrived here on Oct 5 and have been running ever since. This time, I have 3 dining facilities to run, 46 garbage trucks and coincidentally, garbage men to chase around. I have two fire departments and the whole base to clean on a daily basis. With over 350 employees under me and an entire base to cover, I haven't stopped since I got here. Being around Americans on a daily basis has been somewhat of a culture shock to me since arriving as well. Most every one of them though, is cooperative and supportive.

We serve over 9000 soldiers here at Taji. It is a training base for many different types of soldier. The one thing that has not changed with location is the general attitude and operating standards of the Iraqi Soldier. They are destructive by nature. I have yet to figure out if they just don't understand how to use a doorknob or a faucet properly or if they just do not care. Most, I believe, just don't care because there is no penalty for such an infraction. Perhaps they believe that if they destroy enough things, they will get all new. I don't know.

There are two sides to this base: Iraqi and Coalition(American) Since I have had the opportunity to enjoy Iraqi quisine since my arrival 8 months ago, I have indulged daily at the American dining facilities. There are two here: Big and Small During regular days of the week, you can choose from cheeseburgers, pasta made to order, mexican, chinese, Baskin Robbins Ice Cream, as well as a host of 'Traditional' food like ham or Roast beef. A1 Steaksauce is on every table and the drink coolers have every thing fluid imaginable. Why yes I have gained weight since being here. If you are not in the mood for dining in, you can dine out at one of the 'Plaza' restaurants including: Pizza Hut, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Cinnabon and Popeyes Chicken. It is food heaven here and yes, again, it is showing!

I did not know what to expect yesterday when we went to eat lunch for Thanksgiving. It is normally somewhat busy in the dining facilities but yesterday, when we pulled up, there was a large line. We waited in the line outside and everyone that was leaving the dining facility told everyone in the line quite happily "Happy Thanksgiving Y'all!!" I believe I am one of only 9 or 10 Yankees here as well but I'll save that for a later blog. When we finally entered the handwash station, we could here a brass band playing Christmas tunes! This was going to be good! Once out of the handwash station and into the main facility, we were greated by a very large tapestry that an elementary school in the U.S. had sent. It was extremely difficult to hold back tears as I looked up at the tapesty to see 30 something brightly colored little turkeys made by tracing around the hands of each child to create the outline for the turkey and then splashing on bright red heads and a hundred different colors! "Thank You!!" it said boldly at the bottom and each one was signed by a Jacob or an Amanda or a Kristen.

Next, we passed 3 gigantic cakes. Each must have measured 3 feet by 4 feet! They were decorated with thanksgiving cornocopias and turkeys as well. The brass band could be heard very clearly now as there is no volume control for brass apparently and again, a lump crept into my throat as jingle bells was played loudly and audaciously by the happy band members Scanning across the dining hall, it was Thanksgiving everywhere!! Soldiers dressed as pilgrims and indians, cakes and pies filled glass cases, the waiters in the dining hall were frantically trying to keep the pumpkin pie case filled by wheeling cart after cart of the stuff to the back dessert cases! The whole place smelled of Turkey, Ham and Pies! When we made it to the Main Line, we were greated by happy servers from India who seemed amazed at our happiness over the food. "Turkey Sir?!" The man yelled over the crazed brass. "Hell Yes!" I said and began working my way down the line that contained every traditional Thanksgiving item ever conceived! My plate was loaded when we finally found a table among the crowd. In the center of the hall, where we sat, there were Lobster tables with brightly festooned table clothes and little grapejuice dispensers that poured the juice out like fountains. Shrimp cocktail tables, and more enormous cakes! We ate and grinned like chimps as a thousand "Happy Thanksgiving!"'s were said around us.

As I sat, the thought of Thanksgivings past came to the forefront of my thought. I began to remember the 'Kids' tables we had to sit at for the longest time. I remembered just how the house smelled when the last item was put on the table and how loud it was with my family all talking at once. I remembered the time my bare chested brother opened the oven to show 'Cesear', our 15 pound cat the turkey. It seemed that Cesear found the extreme heat more interesting than the delicious turkey so he bagan to do some carving of his own!! I can't remember if Mark needed stitches or not. I remembered my wifes noodles which, for the past 10 years, have been a staple of every Thanksgiving. Oh how I miss her noodles! I gave thanks at that moment for all the wonderful memories of Thanksgivings past and for all the work these fine people had done to take us all out of this broken doorknobbed country.......even if it was for only an hour.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A Line In The Sand

It's been a long time since I've last reported. Partly out of growing cynicism towards the population, partly due to a generally poor attitude since returning from a wonderful vacation to the states, and partly due to my camp at Abu Ghraib being taken over by the Iraqi Government and beginning anew...........again.

I've been at this new camp now for one month and I'm still reaching for ways to describe it. You see, unlike the other camps that I've been to where the officers are pretty much just grabbed from the street and an officers brand is applied, these guys have been officers for a while. In fact, some have been officers for over 20 years. When I first came to this camp, I expected the normal fistfight during meal time and the mongrel hordes coming through our wire as has been the case since I've gotten to this country. The first meal I observed was quiet and orderly. I leaned over to my translator and whispered "I've landed in the Twilight Zone....." His reply was somwhat discomforting, albeit, I was happy....."You don't know the half of it" he whispered.....

After attending several meals with the same result and meeting some of the officers(polished and shaved) , I longed to know just what the hell was going on here! An officer, who I now consider a friend then asked me one evening if I'd take part in one of my favorite pastimes....... shooting. I gladly grabbed my weapons because I was feeling a little out of practice anyway. My translator, myself, his translator and the Captain headed for the range. I wasn't sure where the range was on the base and I quickly found out that it wasn't on the base at all! My heart raced as we drove through the front gate out into 'The Wilds'. "God, I'm an Idiot!!" I thought to myself. The officer quickly noted my fear and looked at me in the rear view mirror and smiled. "Mako Mushkala Grieso" (No Problem) they have a hard time pronouncing my name so they all call me Grieso now. It seems that Grieso is a dragon from T.V.'s past that wanted to be a fireman instead of starting fires. Anyway......

The Captains translator rolls around in the front seat to face me in the back. "Nothing will happen to me........" his voice trailed off as he turned around again. All I could do was sit and watch all these people watching us drive by. We got to the range and there were various people, mostly children, milling about. Again, I was panicking and again, the Captain assured me that we would not encounter ANY problems here. I learned later exactly why we would not have ANY problems from the locals. I shot my AK and my Shorty AK as well as my pistol. The Captain was satisfied with my ability and we joked a little when I wasn't lookin over my shoulder. When we got back to camp, he invited me to eat with him. My translator, myself and Captain G had a good dinner and when the Chai was brought we started into legitimate conversation. He asked me about various things concerning the way things are being handled here and how the new government is shaping up. I asked him questions about his history and what he did before the war.

When he started answering my questions, I thought he was joking. He's telling me about protecting the president and stopping assasination attempts and different things and I'm thinking......'Why isn't he still protecting the President?' and the whole time my translator's eyebrows keep giving me that 'Do you get it yet?' look...........The President?.......My translator says THE President.....Oh....Oh my... When we first invaded this country, the military knew they would receive little resistence in the far provinces but they knew the closer they got to Baghdad, the more 'Republican Guard' units they would meet and the resistance would grow. The Republican Guard was responsible for keeping Saddam alive at any and all costs, to derive intelligence from the local population, disimenate it and find out who is who and what the heartbeat of any local population was, and to carry out Saddams orders whatever they may be.

I thought these guys were all in hiding! I'm sitting across the table and chatting with and.......OH my......I'm surrounded by..!!! Republican Guard Members!!!!!! Everything said in passing and the way they acted about different things especially their demands that the food be of the utmost quality and that it be served properly and the fact that they were said to be 'experts' in 'intelligence' all came flooding in.......Who was going to mess with these guys at the firing range? Only a Lunatic!! At first I thought "I'm in real deep now" but upon further Q&A, I've discovered that their pride doesn't lie in the fact that some were in the next room from Saddam, but rather that they were all very good at what they did. They are still good at what they do. This time around, they are using their talents for the good though. I've sat through various stories that they tell and I'll tell you, any American that knows anything about this country and the history of the past 35 years would salivate at the thought of hearing them in person!!!!!

So, fast forward two weeks. We're all one big happy family. I'm making new and exciting friends and my staff is working like crazy and then one night, my translator and I sit down with an upper level member of the group and here's where things get sort of weird. My new friends love to talk politics and in this country, religion and politics go hand in hand. Well, exactly put, religion is the very first and all other things just occur because that is the way it's deemed by God. So my Shitte translator is translating the officers words and he begins to explain to me that a lot of these things we heard in America were made up by the 'guilty' parties. We're talking about kicking in doors of innocent people in the middle of the night for nothing more than refusing to attend a rally supporting their leader or refusing to join the Army. My translator begins to stammer at this point and I don't really notice his anger until the conversation turns to the officers explaining that, for instance, a man was arrested and he told the government that he did nothing but it ended up that he had a brother that was trying to lead a revolution movement from another country. This man was Shia. "The Shia are not really smart enough to run the country and THAT is why it's in such turmoil.".

It's just the three of us in a small room and I can see my translator trying to maintain and the officer just continues to talk. "So many of these 'innocent' people were guilty of many crimes under the rule of law and the rule of Islam." he continues and now my translators hands are shaking so I look at my watch and yawn......time to go!!! We get out of site and he starts jumping up and down and making the international sign for I Could Just Choke The Shit Out Of Something!!!!!! I'm like "What??!!". "Did you hear that.....that....Shit!!!!!?????". "Is he right?" I ask like an idiot. "WHAT???" he says! Okay.... I get it but I didn't think it would be right up front like that. I thought the differences between Sunni Muslims and Shitte or Shia(I have found both to be correct depending on the writer)Muslims were known like Catholics and Methodists but you don't just go digging at another like that. I've always lived in camps where it's US and THEM in the same camp. My staff and the Iraqis we are feeding, fueling, etc but this kind of throws a new wrench into the gears. We're all supposed to get along in the New Iraq but the more that time goes by, I see my Shitte staff and our new Sunni friends drawing.................
A Line In The Sand......... to be continued........

Friday, July 15, 2005

Going Home.......Finally

Well, almost 4 months now. I'm back in Baghdad waiting for my flight. I'll spend a few days here to come back down from the excitement of the past 40 days. It feels good but now that I'm not 'running' at camp, I'm bored. I just want to be home now. I started this blog to try to describe what a person experiences while in Iraq. After 4 months, this is the situation report. My wife and I get along better than we ever have. I feel more strongly for her than I ever have. When we first started dating, I thought I was in love. That was nothing, THIS is what love feels like and it took being over here to really see it.

My daughters life didn't seem to change all that much with me being gone except the fact that I am not there to critic her every move trying to make her a 'better person'. I don't have to critic anything she does. She has been the young lady that everyone else knew she was but I refused to see. I have changed, she is still the same good girl as when I left. My son,........oh boy. He just doesn't understand. He's a little fella and he misses his Daddy. My wife told him over a week ago that I was coming home soon and she tells me that everyday, he looks out the window and asks when I'll get my red truck? I sold it before I left but he thinks I drove it to Iraq. He's 3. I don't think any one thing tears at me as when I think of him. His face, somehow, hurts to think about. I'll tell you that I'm a very emotional person but I haven't had THE breakdown over here. I thought I would when I first got here but I didn't and I haven't. I don't know why.

The rest of my family, I think, thinks it's interesting that I'm over here but I never here from them so I'm really unsure of how they really feel. I talk to my Mother. She was pretty upset when I left but I think the fact that I'm here is settling in now. I imagine she bores people to death with Iraq stories. I've never served in the armed services like my family thought I should. I grew up with the military and it was never really my bag but being over here has brought me a lot closer to realizing that I probably could have done very well for myself in the service. I mesh well with every branch. I can't wait to get home and eat real food see my wife and my kids. It's indescribable what I'd do at this point to assure that I saw them again. I'm not feeling particularly poetic because I'm leaving. I'll end with this. Is it worth the money? Yes. Does it help your 10 year relationship? Yes. Have I asked myself several times what the Hell I'm doing here? YES. In the end though, whether you are working down the street or across the globe, it's about perception. Before I left, my wife and I were becoming roomates and I just wanted the kids to be quiet. I appreciate life 100 times more and I believe my family feels the same. We'll be stronger and wiser for this in the end.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A Large Chunk of Irony or It's a Small Small World

I work for a company that provides services like food, water, fuel, laundry and other things to the New Iraqi Army. With each group of Army or Police, there is a small group of American Soldiers with them to help teach and coordinate their actions. In my new camp, there is an officer with the Americans that has been my 'point of contact'. We're the same age and share a lot of the same ideals. Wait, let me back up.

In 1985, I travelled to Germany to see part of my family that was stationed there. I was 15. Being the age that I was and having a male relative of the same age and with the drinking age at around 4 in Germany, we wreaked havoc on the German Countryside. It was a wonderful time and I made many German and American friends. We hung out mostly with a group of American kids that went to K-town High School. Kaiserslautern High. We went to the discos and hung out and terrorized elderly people and small children like most 15 year old kids do. I spent almost two months their in 1985 and went back in 1987 for another two months.

Fast forward to Iraq 2005. 20 years later. I'm sitting with this officer that is attached to the Iraqi Army and were talking about this and that and he mentions that he spent time in Germany. "What part of Germany?" I asked. "K-town" he replied. "How old are you?" was my next question. "35" he answered. "huh, I you know _____?" I asked about my male relative that I stayed with and ran with while in Germany. "Yeah, we graduated together and hung out at......." "You're kidding!!?" I smiled wildly! I couldn't believe it. Me and this guy hung out together and talked twenty years ago in another foriegn country and here we sat together again!!!! Once we got the names out of the way, away we went with all the places we used to hang out in and discos and girls and friends. Amazing. People say it's a small world. If you've never left your small community, I'm here to tell you. IT REALLY IS.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Cat's Out Of The Bag........

90 days has come and gone. Three months in Iraq and nothing has changed......or has it? When I read my early blogs, they seem so innocent and imaginative. It was a wonderland with fresh new faces and a huge adventure ahead. I'll stay on for another 25 days and then take my first vacation. The wonder and adventure is damn near over for me now. I can speak enough Arabic to get just about anything across, I can walk by a tent or building and pick up problems or gossip, I have seen the country's scenery for the most part and now, I've started a new camp in between the lovely village of Fallujah and the beautiful resort town of Abu Ghraib.

When I made my first site visit here, I was told about the mortar and rocket attacks that plagued the base. Although the number of dead and wounded were not high, the likelyhood of being near an explosion was. The camp is in a pretty decent neighborhood for the most part, I mean, hitting the Dairy Mart for coffee in the morning is still pretty much out but it's okay. A few miles away however, a small portion of the population looks forward to seeing the smoke plumes rise up from my camp and the people running frantically to save their friends lives by holding their bare hands on open wounds and waving frantically for trucks to stop for pickup.

We were in camp around 5 days when the first attack started. 8:30a.m. I was walking towards the dining facility. Ahead of me and above the dining building, I saw a large black cloud of smoke. Then I heard the report. I was on the phone with my boss. The people at my company all joked with me the day I left Baghdad to come here. Everyone here knows what this area is like. IEDs, VBIDs, Rockets, Mortars, and a whole host of other exciting things to make the heart jump just a little faster. Everyone joked to make me feel better saying things like "Don't come back unless you have both arms." or "Make sure the hood they give you isn't too snug because you will get a nasty rash on the end of your nose." Joking about the nasties makes us all feel a little easier.

So I'm on the phone with the boss in Baghdad. I see the smoke, here the report and everyone in my camp just looks at me as I watch the smoke rise ahead. I knew what it was.......I just didn't want to believe it... I started yelling to my people to take cover "Yella!! Yella!!" (move! move!) I stopped thinking about the conversation I was having until my boss yells into the phone "What the hell is going on there?". "We're being mortared, I'll call you back." I hung up and my mind started racing. What the hell am I doing here? Where are my men? I looked to see that my men were in the bunker we built. It was hard work to build but now the men felt safe. The second round came in just seconds after the first. Then the third. Then the fourth. You could see the rounds heading East as they fell, thankfully, away from my camp. I got to the bunker and was relieved until the realization that all of my men were not there.

I ran out of the bunker and into the tents and buildings my men are staying in. There I saw people still trying to find their cigerettes. Lacing up shoes and boots. I couldn't believe what I was seeing! I'm out here trying to get them to safety, placing myself at risk so they could find their missing lighter so they wouldn't have to sit in the bunker without cigerettes!!! I grabbed people and shoes and started throwing each through the doors. The whole thing only lasted about 60 seconds but what a rush. The men were finally accounted for and safe. I went over to the South edge of my little part of the base and looked through binoculars at the impact site. Men and trucks running and driving wildly. People running with limbs, throwing them in the back of trucks. Workers pouring out of the front gate in a stampede. All Hell broke loose and I was watching it. I've tried to hide the bad things from my wife and family as long as I could but this morning, my wife read an email that I had forwarded her. It was a reply to an email I had written and I had told someone about the mortars. She asked "How many times has your camp been mortared?" I kind of froze. 'She's not supposed to know this stuff!' 'How?'

She actually said she felt better because she knew I wasn't being truthful with the things I've seen and done here. I told her that I'd tell her the whole story in 1 year. John Wayne's not here, Rambo would have ducked and Tom Hanks pretty much had it right. My hands shake just a little now if someone drops something in the next room or outside my door and stopping dead in your tracks and just listening seems to come with the territory but, I wouldn't change a thing.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Shangri La in Iraq!

Well, the drive to Mosul from Baghdad was uneventful thank God. I'm here now and what a difference! There are foothills to the North of the city made up of craggy rocks and sporadic brush and trees. It's looks as if a giant took his hand and clawed from the bottom to the top of every hill. Water flows in places and the whole place is green with low grass and shrubs. The city of Mosul is larger than I imagined. It is bustling with life and at night, they actually have lights throughout most of the city. Directly to the North of Mosul is Kurdistan. I think people are still arguing whether 'Kurdistan' really exists but believe me, they have the border between Kurdish controlled Iraq and regular old Iraq locked down fairly well. The Kurdish soldiers are called the Pesh Merga. I have not had time to look up why they are called such but they are a joy to be around after spending 45 days in the Western desert with the Crazies. Once you cross the border, you go through the foothills for a few miles and into an enormous valley East to West. The soil is fertile and there are farmers selling their wares from the backs of pickups. Potatoes and onions and stuff. To the North of the large valley, you enter the mountains. I have heard since being in country, of the towns in Kurdistan. They are the only places in this country that I have heard of people taking off their flak jackets and walking openly in the streets and shops.

Today, I had the pleasure of doing just this. The drive was beautiful through the mountains. I can fully understand how the Kurds kept the Iraqi army at bay after driving through them. The mountains provide on of the finest defensive positions in the whole country. You must travel through deep valleys to get through them and any invading ground force would be churnned up immediatly when trying to do so. Once in the city, just like in the stories, everyone started dropping their vests and weapons. I was in shock for a while walking on the street and shops without a vest but I was assured when I saw other Americans there doing the same. Like idiots, we'd smile wide and just walk up to each other and introduce ourselves and talk about the place where we were and how wonderful it was. The most surprising thing about the shops was that they held pretty steady with American prices. I thought I'd find cheap shopping heaven but I wasn't dissappointed because they had just about one of everything!

The next and most strange thing that we did was walk into a restaurant. I haven't forgotten what a restaurant is like, but it sure was strange to walk into a restaurant in Iraqi albeit controlled by the Kurdish forces. When we walked in, it was smiles from one end of the restaurant to the other. Everyone said hello and we were seated. The restaurant was a deli style looking place with plastic tables and windows that looked out onto the busy street. I asked for a menu but when I couldn't make heads or tails of even the English part, the waiter took notice and turned the menu over to the pictures. Everything looked great so we all picked our favorite picture and ordered. While the meal was being prepared a host of things were brought to the table apparently as appetizers or to be eaten with the meal. A large dish of sliced cucumbers in a light yogurt sprinkled with fresh dill. My mouth almost fell apart when I ate that because it was so good. Next was a large dish of green olives that had been marinated in what tasted like a white wine. Oh......the joy. A soup was served as was bread and a large plate of Chick peas and also a meatish, vegatable mixture that tasted like the veggies were just picked. At last a centerpeice of varying cut fruits and vegatables and pickles and cheeses was put before us. There were forks and spoons flying all over that table!!! We hadn't even recieved our meals yet!!!! Had I actually been shot at that point, I would have died with a smile on my face!!!

Next came the main course. I can't remember the name of my dish but it was a combination of rice mixed with vegatables and raisins and chicken baked into a bread somehow. the whole thing was about as big as a head of lettuce. My comrades got chicken kabob and my dish as well. When we were just about finished with our meals the waiter brought out a plastic pitcher and placed it on the table. I don't know how he even got the pitcher on the table for all the plates of food that were present!!!!! My friend inquired as to what was in the pitcher. We were told that it was a light yogurt and cream milk mixture for after dinner. It was spooky to look at when my friend drank it but when he gave me the 'You gotta try this' look, off I went. It was delicious as well but I wanted to limit it because I just didn't recognise what it was! After that we shopped for about an hour and drove back.

My last blog was a plea for some sanity and peace. I have found it in the most unlikely of places. They are fighting on a daily basis in Mosul. Helicopters buzz over the city on a constant basis and the fighting will be a while but I know that just to the North, my Shangri La awaits my return.