Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lafayette, We Are Here!

No thanks to the brain-dead folks operating my old FOB's air operations office, I finally hopped on a flight last Monday and was at Baghdad International Airport (known in these parts by its acronym, BIAP) 20 minutes later. Before I forget, even though lots of negative comments get heaped upon the civilian contractors who work for the former Halliburton subsidiary of KBR, I need to mention some shining exceptions: The folks who operate the civilian motor pool and the employees running the Army Post Office at FOB Kalsu are dedicated, competent, non-bureaucratic, and best of all, extremely customer-service oriented...I shall really miss working with them all. Of similar competence are the men and women who keep the BIAP military helicopter passenger operations humming like a...rotor blade? (Points deducted for crap-o analogy.) TSA could really learn a thing or 50 from these professionals.

Now, on to the story at hand. I wrote about what it was like to visit Baghdad, not expecting to be taking up residence here 30 days later. Since I'm apparently on an analogy kick tonight, I'm going to compare the Victory Base Complex (VBC) to a gigunda anthill. Yeah, not fresh in the least, but if you saw the little figures scurrying around the big, bare mound nicknamed "Commo Hill", named so because it is bristling with every kind of radio, microwave, and likely TV antennae, anthill would come to your mind as well.

After a week here, I am very happy with the change. The pace is definitely high-speed...I've done more interviews in one week than I did in the previous month. We're averaging one or two new cases per day. My colleagues are pretty high-speed as well. It's definitely a fun working environment, with lots of practical jokes being sprung. I have a lot more resources at my disposal, especially a file server containing electronic case files for the past 4 years. Need an example of a crime scene sketch for a motor vehicle theft? It's in there. Reward request and poster? There are literally 50 different types available. It makes doing casework fast and efficient.

Living conditions are a bit different from FOB Kalsu...nah, they are a LOT different! The CHUs are less sturdy, and square vs. rectangular. I have bunk beds in my room, (shades of 1964!) plus a "pleather" leprechaun-sized loveseat, and a full-sized desk for my laptop and TV. My CHU is located in a sprawling housing area, sort of a "combat Levittown", and in the midst of a persistent sea of mud. Even though the last rain was a week ago, the mud is just as wet and gooey. Topping off the location's charm is the distance to the latrine, which I reach after trekking a quarter-mile through the muck...which gives me incentive to increase my sprint speed!

I'll follow up shortly with my account of touring the ruins of the "Victory Over America" Palace, (I have photos) and the Hooters Girls appearance where I was on the security detail (sorry, NO photos...)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

More Stuff You Can't Just Make Up

While still stuck in Lodi...er, my FOB, killing time waiting to fly to Baghdad, I bought a military history magazine at the PX. In this reputable publication, my eyes fell on an advertisement that I first thought was a parody, headlined with "The Ultimate WWII Reality Experience!" The ad continues: "Book your place now for the reality tourism experience of a lifetime. For ten days you will be an Allied Airman, shot down over Nazi-occupied Poland. Polish resistance agents will protect you and show you Warsaw, then you will be arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Stalag Luft XIX, our authentic re-creation of a WWII Luftwaffe POW camp..." (italics are mine).

Admittedly, like most boys who grew up in the 50's and 60's, I was fascinated by WWII movies and TV shows, idolized my Dad and uncles who served in the war, and built model Spitfires, B-17s, and P-51 Mustangs...and even enjoyed Hogan's Heroes for the parody it was. That said, I think this whole deal seems to cross most boundaries of good taste.
Check it out for yourselves, and let me know your opinion: www.powescapes.com

(I can see it now...in 10 years, the Iraqi Government will launch Water(board) World: Book your next vacation at a faithful reproduction of Saddam Hussein's political prison, staffed by re-enactors who might still be actual members of the Baath Party. )

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Welcome to the Hotel (FOB) California

Where apparently I can check in anytime I want, but I can never leave. Looks like it is going to take me 4 or 5 days to make it to my new duty station...which is less than 50 miles as the Blackhawk flies. Discussing why it's taking so long is prohibited here in Blogland, but let's just say it's not Army Aviation's finest hour...

Having said my goodbyes to acquaintances on FOB Mayberry 3 separate times now, it is getting kind of embarrassing to run in to them in the mess hall..."What, you're still here?" I've moved in to the office so as to leave my CHU vacant for my replacement, who may make it here some time tonight...hooked up my laptop to the internet connection, and have set up a cot, so there are all the comforts, yet I'm still packed up and ready to roll at a moment's notice. I'm definitely better off than the group of Air Force folks who have been waiting in the small bus station-like airfield "ready room" for the past 3 days. Those guys are starting to look like cast members on "Survivor"...except they have no hope of profiting from an immunity challenge which would get 'em on a helo.

Wish me luck...and send your happy thoughts to the Combat Stress Clinical Team and Civil Engineering Group, so that they may soon be finally voted off the "island".

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

NOW I Know

why there are all those metal grates outside every building door here. The mud here isn't just ordinary mud...it's SUPER MUD!!!! This stuff sticks to my boots like dog poop, will not wash off, and doesn't dry out for weeks. Is this evidence of Iraqi bio-engineering? Did "Chemical Ali" figure out the formula for replicating the same mud which bogged down both Napoleon's and Hitler's armies outside of Moscow?

By the way, the metal grates don't really work all that well, but it gives the illusion that we've done something prior to tracking thick brown gobs all over the floor...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Weekend Update

And unfortunately, no Amy Poehler here either...
I was informed yesterday that I am part of a "musical chairs movement", and will be reporting next week for duty in the Greater Baghdad Area. That'll place me in much closer proximity to "the flagpole" than I'd like, but it's still better than being almost anywhere in Afghanistan. The new scenery and working conditions should provide a lot of blog fodder, though I will miss the bucolic life here on "FOB Mayberry". (Photo of my new office location is posted above.)

By the way, I was going to recount my experience with an Iraqi Police senior officer the other day, but quickly realized that by doing so I would likely run afoul of Multi-National Force-Iraq blog guidelines. You can read between the lines here. At least it'll provide the basis for a great vingnette in the slowly-developing novel.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lotsa Work, and My (Belated) Veteran's Day Commentary

Greetings, Dear Readers...

Sorry for not posting in a while, but when the "new kids" arrived in town, they brought a crapload of problems with them. We'd had it pretty easy with the old brigade, which was settled in and running smoothly when we arrived. Their soldiers weren't perfect, but they didn't seem to commit a lot of serious crimes over here. That made for a boring, but perfectly acceptable situation. No more lazy Sundays watching TV and fishing lately, though, and there's no end in sight. Our office has been receiving RFAs (Requests For Assistance) from the CID office at the stateside post where our new unit is based at a prodigious rate (1-2 per day), and most of these RFAs require travel to an outlying FOB. Our "away game" schedule is beginning to resemble that of the Seattle Mariners.

Veteran's Day in the Sandbox reinforced how fortunate I am to have the very best family, friends, and colleagues possible. "How's that?" you may ask...Well, while there was a lot of nice sentiments expressed on TV shows, concerts, and I'm told places like Applebee's, Famous Dave's BBQ, Krispy Kreme Donuts, and others offered free meals to veterans and active duty folks. But while I've been deployed, y'all have treated me like EVERY day is Veteran's Day. I don't know if I've adequately expressed how much your support has meant to me, between the positive emails, letters, care packages, and phone conversations, but all of your efforts have really kept me sane and grounded during the tough times over here. I've definitely got it much easier than those of you that were engaged in active ground combat, but war is still hell, especially having to be so far away from home. By the way, in honor of Veteran's Day, our Mess Hall served free meals to everyone!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Old Battlefields

My partner and I flew to a base down on the Iraq-Iran border to conduct an investigation. As we neared to within 20 miles of Iran, I looked out the door of the UH-60 and was surprised to see hundreds of old artillery emplacements dotting the flat terrain. There were even piles of shell casings, and a few gun carriages dumped in some of the more remote areas. The scene reminded me a bit of the WWI battlefield at Verdun. Of course, there was no grass growing on the trenches, and definitely no memorials. Up to the moment that I saw all these earthworks, I had only a vague awareness of the Iraq-Iran War's magnitude. This area sure looked like good tank terrain, though I don't know how marshy it was.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Different Kind of War Casualty

While the nation's attention is focused on the growing numbers of battle deaths occurring in Afghanistan (and rightfully so, as those fallen warriors deserve to be honored to the greatest extent possible), most of the general public is not fully aware of the soldiers who are dying as a result of "non-battle-related incidents." That's Pentagon-speak for any death due to accidents, natural causes, homicide, or suicide. My colleagues and I are tasked with investigating each and every "non-battle-related" death over here, and it is a tough mission, especially so for the suicides. The Armed Forces have devoted a lot of attention and effort to proactive suicide awareness and prevention programs. On AFN-TV, there's at least one suicide prevention-related public service "commercial" on every channel, every hour. The Army has developed a relevant and sensitive suicide awareness/prevention program which features interactive video and handouts, coupled with unit-level training on a regular basis. Almost every FOB has a combat stress control clinic, staffed by highly qualified psychologists and counselors.
Yet despite all of these excellent resources, young men and women continue to end their lives in Iraq, and it just doesn't make sense. Some of them are just months, weeks, or even days from going home. Many are on their first deployment. It has been really rugged seeing battle-hardened NCOs and officers, trying to figure out why one of their soldiers decided to take their own life.
Although I've seen a lot of death during my military and law enforcement careers, and grieved for friends and fellow officers killed in the line of duty, investigating these "non-battle-related casualties" has gotten pretty darn tough for most of us. I wish I had an answer...but I sure don't.

(On a very personal note, I am very fortunate to be blessed with a strong support system and coping skills, which allows me to get through all this stuff with my psyche, and sense of humor intact. I wish everyone was similarly blessed.)