Saturday, October 31, 2009

Notes from a Combat Truck Stop

Late Friday afternoon my partner and I got the word that we were going to a convoy support camp to handle a death investigation. We had about 20 minutes to gather our crime scene gear, grab our "Go Bag", and jump into an MRAP (Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected) vehicle convoy headed down MSR (Main Supply Route) Tampa to the camp. The MRAP is kind of like one of those mini-buses that the retirement communities use, only heavily armored, with a hull designed to deflect roadside bombs. Couldn't see much in the growing dusk as we zoomed south down the highway, but the MRAP has a surprisingly smooth, quiet ride, lulling a number of our fellow passengers to nod off. No snoozing for me or my partner (nicknamed "K-9", as she used to be an MP dog handler), since this was our first time outside the wire in a ground convoy. It took us about an hour to get to the camp, which has the primary mission of supporting the military convoys coming to and from Kuwait. "K-9" and I hit the ground running, and worked straight through the night, processing the scene and interviewing witnesses. We took a break for breakfast in the camp's small mess hall, which like a truck stop diner is open 24-7, and come to think of it, has about the same menu. The camp commander had given us a couple of CHUs, so we headed there to grab a short nap and a shower before resuming our investigation. It was just before dawn, and for the first time in Iraq I heard the Muezzin broadcasting the "call to prayer" from the minaret outside the camp walls...really felt like I was living in an arabic country, instead of a very large trailer park in southwest Arizona. My partner and I worked through lunch completing our interviews, and finished up in time to catch a ride with an armored Humvee patrol heading back to our FOB. It was a very different experience riding northward in the Humvee...a lot noisier, but since it was daylight, I could see everything around us. The civilian traffic flew by us, gents in arabic dress crammed into SUVs and tiny sedans, a few luxury Mercedes Benz cars, obviously armor plated by their low ride, and a lot of young men peddling their heavily-loaded bicycles down the shoulders of the highway. Our patrol lumbered pretty slowly by comparison to every other vehicle except the bikes, but we didn't stop for traffic slowdowns, moving instead into opposite lanes to get around jams. Every few miles I saw an Iraqi Police pickup truck posted on the side of the road, with a cop in the bed manning a light machine gun on the about heavy traffic enforcement! There were goat and cow herds along both sides of the road, and as we approached a recently-built highway overpass, instead of a line of motor vehicle traffic crossing over our heads, it was a conga line of cattle shuffling placidly along. About midway back, we were detoured around a traffic collision...but instead of orange traffic cones, the IPs had set out big rocks and scrap metal to mark the temporary lanes. (Maybe dog agility people stole all of their cones!)
Roadside commerce is sure different in Southern Iraq; gas stations consist of a single pump in a mini-van sized shack, and the restaurants are all open air affairs, most featuring big rotisseries roasting large chunks of meat. It reminded me of travelling up old California Highway 99 through the Central Valley in the early 60's...all it needed was a couple of "Big Orange" stands to complete the picture.
I enjoyed the ride, even more so due to the lack of IEDs or other bad guy was enough to keep me awake until we got back home, secured our packages of evidence, and grabbed a quick bite of dinner before surrendering to the siren call of our CHUs.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bummer in Baghdad

Our unit suffered its first casualty of the deployment. Our battalion executive officer lost his life due to a "non-combat related incident" on Tuesday. I can't discuss details, but my deepest condolences to the XO's family, friends, and colleagues.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Live Blog From Baghdad

After spending my tour of duty up 'til now in small Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), I happily volunteered to take a piece of electronic equipment up to our unit headquarters in Baghdad for repair. It was a great opportunity to see my friends from our reserve unit, and do a little sightseeing. I wasn't prepared for the amount of traffic, pavement, and huge buildings that cover the gigantic Victory Base Complex, and felt kind of like a "country bumpkin" while staring goggle-eyed at everything around me. The centerpiece is the renowned Al Faw Palace, which is opulent in a cheesy, Las Vegas sort of way. No visit to Al Faw Palace is complete until tourists have been photographed while seated on Saddam Hussein's throne. The Leprechaun couldn't resist the lure of planting his posterior for posterity...some pretty famous rear ends have occupied this surprisingly comfy piece of furniture.
Another pleasant surprise awaited me during dinner in one of the Mega Mess Halls. The USO put together a cartoonist tour to visit bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so I got to meet and chat with "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau. Mr. Trudeau is a truly gracious fellow who has used his strip as a "bully pulpit" to increase Americans' awareness of the struggles our Wounded Warriors encounter. He drew a nice little sketch of "BD", personalized it, and presented me with a "Doonesbury in the Sandbox" commemorative coin. I'll try to post a photo of both mementos soon.
More photos from Baghdad will follow, but after a pretty sporty helo ride on the return trip, I'm worn out and gonna hit the sack!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

CHU Like My Place?

I intended to share photos of the metal box that is my home during this deployment, but just never got around to it until today. This is my assigned Containerized Housing Unit, or CHU...also known by equally-homey terms such as "Can" or "Hootch". A quick tour: You'll note the state of the art "Home Theater", complete with 22" LCD TV; I receive 10 channels of Armed Forces Network TV, plus I have a collection of DVDs, and an external hard drive containing over 200 movies, which play on my TV when connected to my laptop computer. The comfy chairs even have handy cup-holders! When it's bed-time for Bonzo, the surprisingly comfortable mattress, covered with the camoflage-pattern "Woobie" (that's the unofficial GI name for the quilted poncho liner, which is probably the Army's best issue item) has been kind to me. My "stuff" is inside that classy gray steel wall locker...thankfully I don't have, or need much "stuff"! My fishing pole is in the corner, ready to go at a moment's notice whenever I get free time during daylight hours...which hasn't happened lately. (The turtles are no doubt thankful for this respite!)

Well, I hope you've enjoyed the tour...Look for the 3-star rating in next month's "Michelin Guide to Combat Zone B&Bs" available at better bookstores everywhere!

Interesting Meeting

I had the privilege of meeting Iraqi Major A_____, who is the "Rule of Law" for the province. Very gracious and friendly, he was at our office as part of a series of orientation briefings on the American military justice system here in Iraq. I showed him the size of the case file I'm currently working, which when stacked up is close to 24" high...the Major was amazed, and astutely asked why we haven't adopted an all-digital case file system. I learned, through an interpreter, how the Iraqi Army (IA) interfaces with the Iraqi Police (IP), which is substantially different from how the US Armed Forces work with our civilian counterparts. After a very interesting conversation, I presented Major A_____ with my CID brassard and patch from my uniform...I think he would have preferred either our super-glue fuming apparatus, or maybe my Sig-Sauer pistol...!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dodged a Bullet (Figuratively!)

I was assigned an RFA (Request For Assistance) from a Stateside Army post today. Turned out to be a "bad news/good news" deal.

The Bad News: The RFA will require interviewing up to 20 different soldiers, plus the suspect(s), all said to be located at a remote patrol base, which will require 3 days of grueling investigation away from most of my tools, such as my computer for taking sworn statements.

The Good News: After I carefully read over the documents attached to the RFA, I realized that the unit with all of the involved soldiers had re-deployed back to the USA almost a year ago...which the sending agent apparently failed to check. Oops. So, I got to send back the RFA with a polite, professional note which roughly translated to "Not it!"

All in all, it was an excellent omen for the weekend.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Nights in White Shattin...

I've not been able to get back to sleep after crawling in to bed at 2300. Right after I dropped off to dreamland, some idiot pounded on my door...wrong door...then a group of idiots across the street at brigade headquarters decided to burn a pile of discarded uniforms, sending a noxious cloud of smoke billowing around our CHUs, and filling my CHU with stinky fumes. Tried 3 times to nod off, but the last attempt was thwarted by the idiots (are you detecting a pattern here?) in the CHU next to me, who decided that 0130 was the perfect time to crank up the volume in their stereo to wall-shaking levels, and then scream like maniacs being gnawed upon by badgers. Thankfully, the Major who lives on the opposite side of these mental dwarfs, and is in their chain of command, flew out of his CHU and slammed some heavy object against their door, then yelled how he was going to "rip off their heads and crap down their necks unless they all shut-the-f**k-up-right-f**king-now!" I quietly opened my own door, smiled and thanked the Major, and he very calmly responded, "You're most welcome, Agent Leprechaun," before returning to his own bed.
I love being here.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chronicles of a Combat Zone Couch Potato

After a physically and emotionally-grueling week, I decided to just grab a light dinner to go and return to my CHU and watch baseball play-off games, college and NFL football, President's Cup other words, nothing requiring cognitive thought. I was rewarded for my indolence with some outstanding sports action: Army beat Vanderbilt, Florida held off LSU, the Dodgers swept the Cardinals (I predict it'll be a re-run of the 1963 Dodgers vs. Yankees World Series, with the Dodgers taking it all...despite not having Sandy Koufax on the mound), Tiger and the American team are up by 3.5 points over the Internationals, and best of all, my UW Huskies came from behind to pull out a dramatic win over undefeated Arizona! Woo-Hoo! This should more than offset the expected drubbing the SeaHawks will take tonight at the hands of Carolina.
Come Monday morning, I'll be accelerating back up to 100 mph, so this has been a much needed respite.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The End of a Sad and Tragic Landmark

I noticed this morning that the old Steilacoom Marina was destroyed by a fire yesterday. The building's demise was especially poignant for me, as I had kept my first boat there while living on one of the islands offshore, and I was one of the primary investigators of owner Paul Wang's murder back in the mid-80's. I could never visit the place without thinking how awful that winter day was, seeing Paul's body on the floor. Paul Wang was kind, generous, and friendly to all that stopped by the old marina. He didn't deserve to be brutally murdered by the two young teenagers who had decided to rob the marina store. I'll never forget how matter-of-fact the suspect that I interviewed was when he told me that they'd killed Paul so they couldn't be identified after the robbery. That was my first exposure to sociopathic behavior, and it chilled me to the bone. Those two murderers are still in prison, and with any luck will remain there until they die.
Paul's widow tried to keep the marina going, but faced an uphill battle. Maybe at long last the spirits that I always felt inhabited the place were released with the flames and smoke, and it can once again be a peaceful spot on the Puget Sound.
R.I.P., Paul...and my condolences to you, Shirley.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Day in the Life

This kind of schedule is becoming more typical as things get busier:
6:30 a.m. Physical Fitness Test: Sit-ups, push-ups, 2.5 miles. Aleve is my friend.
9:00 a.m. Review case files and comments from the boss...generate lots of paperwork.
11:00 a.m. Pick up a new investigation, begin to interview the victim.
12:00 noon Break for lunch...grab something a the mess hall, bring it back to the office.
1:30 p.m. Resume victim interview.
7:45 p.m. Break for dinner, and catch up on interview notes while victim is at mess hall.
9:45 p.m. Victim interview complete; set up appointments for witness interviews.
10:30 p.m. Return to CHU, catch up on emails, get clean uniform ready for tomorrow.
Midnight: Collapse on bed, get ready to do it all over again tomorrow.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Go Huskies! Beat the Fighting Irish!

Given that the symbol of the University of Notre Dame is a "Fighting Leprechaun", you'd suppose that I'd be predisposed to root for the Fighting Irish. Sorry...I'm a loyal Dawg, and will be cheering the Purple and Gold on to kick butt at South Bend today! (Oh, yes, Notre Dame...Relax, Don't Fight It...It's Gonna Happen!)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Iraq is "For the Birds"!

I suspect that the famous "Triangle of Death" has never been considered a mecca for birdwatchers. On the other hand, as a courtesy to two very nice people back home (Howdy, Burt and Doris!) who are VERY dedicated birders, I offer a snapshot (well, two snapshots, actually) of the bird situation here in Southern Iraq.

I noticed upon my arrival 3 months ago that there were almost no birds to be seen. With the daily temperature at 120+ degrees, I figured that birds were smart enough to hang out elsewhere. The occasional dove would fly overhead and poop on soldiers, (how's that for war zone irony?) but the absence of birds singing was pretty weird. Then one day about a month ago, as dusk approached and we made our way toward the mess hall, the sky was darkened by thousands of little birdies, all emitting shrill cries. These feathered clouds alighted on the only four eucalyptus trees in our FOB and continued their ear-splitting racket, until a controlled detonation of some confiscated enemy explosives caused every bird to take wing simultaneously and scream about 4 feet over our heads. This show now occurs almost every evening.

I snapped a photo of one of these unremarkable brown birds, sans his buddies, as he perched on the concrete blast wall outside of my CHU...I'm confident that either Burt or Doris will supply the identification once they read this. The second photo is a small portion of the nightly gathering. You'll have to take my word that the little black dots covering the branches are indeed birds. I would have gotten closer, but these birds were especially free with their droppings this evening, and I was wearing a fresh uniform! Anyway, loud as those little brown suckers are, it's nice to hear birds singing again...