Making the NIA

On July 3rd 2004, MG Robinson ordered a Stop-loss in place for the 98th DIV (IT). The to be fully defined mission, was to train the New Iraqi Army using U.S. Army Reserve Drill Sergeants. This is a blog about the challenges of building an army for another country.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Fat Lady Sings

The night was short from a few celebratory adult beverages, and as much as I wanted to sleep I wanted to get moving. Until today I have blocked this day out of my mind, I have tried not to dwell on it for a year. Not that I haven’t wanted to get lost in my fantasies of what will be, but that I couldn’t afford to do that.

Few alarms went off as the bulk of Soldiers in my open bay billet woke on their own or to the sounds of the others around them. We did final packing, and had our final briefings. The chaplain from the base we mobilized and demobilized from showed us a presentation for a memorial service to honor Soldiers from the Indiana National Guard who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

The mini-movie was a conglomeration of other movie scenes and footage from various sources. The background music was apparently a popular country song whose name I don’t know, which transitioned into the Army Chorus singing a song about Soldiers coming home. The all male chorus music was a backdrop for scenes of at first cemeteries, and then Soldiers performing the greatest honor one can by paying tribute to their fallen comrades.

Many an eye was filled with tears, and without command the entire group rose and saluted a picture of a flag draped casket. Nobody had to name the five from this mission that are not going to go home. We all knew them or knew of them. Most importantly we knew what their jobs were and what they went through up to that final moment.

Many then loaded a buss bound for the local airport, some rented cars and drove. The team which moved from our Iraqi battalion together was slowly picked apart for different movement times. Today only four of us remained together. We joked with each other as usual like Soldiers do and embraced like family does.

We stopped to get our hair cut, and MAJ B bought coffee for us. While the cut was not what I anticipated it was done. I waited for MAJ B, and CPT G to finish up. I looked in the trash can outside the barber shop and noticed an antenna from a hand held radio.

I froze in my tracks, torn with what to do. The past year had taught me to question everything and take it as a threat. I looked again to ensure I wasn’t hallucinating. I turned and said to MAJ B and CPT G, I have to do it, but I don’t want to. Their perplexed look urged me on to explain.

Notifying the authorities would surely have locked the terminal down. Civilian authorities would have investigated, questioned and delayed thousands of travelers. We debated it was just a junked radio. It didn’t work or some parent was forced to throw them away as their children were using them inappropriately. It was not what I thought it could be. I worried and fretted over that decision for days.

My flight was a brief one to a larger regional airport where I shared some humorous stories with another advisor who served with me near Baghdad, until he left on his flight. Like a mental review I found myself one more time reviewing the past year. Memories of sights, sounds, and smells filled my mind, some pleasant and others not so much.

I sat in the large terminal forcing myself to sit in the middle and face my fears. Still I found myself looking for angles, avenues of approach and regress, scanning faces in the crowd and determining courses of action and contingencies. I stopped this behavior by beginning this entry in my deployment journal.

I briefly called my first sergeant. I had been warned not to change my flight as someone from my unit would be traveling to see me. So I felt obligated to notify him. I told him when I would arrive and that if he or anyone else from the battalion was planning to arrive I would acknowledge that they had in fact been there, unless of course it was the commander. This chap had taken over mere days before I left and had not contacted me once. No email, no phone call to my wife, no letters, nothing for a year.

The called my flight. I stood and waited knowing my seat was near the front of the aircraft I knew I should be one of the last on the plane. As I stood in line a woman in front of me turned and thanked me. I replied I was just doing my job. Her traveling companion, a work mate didn’t hear our conversation, and then herself thanked me.

The crowd that was at best unknown and aloof to me was now warming. I could see smiles across the room. Smiles and waives of appreciation. This wasn’t so bad after all. Gratuity would become the hallmark of the day.

We boarded the plane and the flight attendant made a special announcement regarding my presence, though it would have been hard not to notice anyone boarding this small craft. The passengers erupted in applause and I was humbled.

As the plane flew I looked over the very familiar landscape, terrain that I had driven over many times when I lived at Ft. Knox. I recognized rivers and eventually the sight of Pittsburgh airport, then key lakes mountains and other terrain features as we approached our final destination.

I was giddy and excited to look upon the ground and watch traffic move in my home town. My home, my friends, my life were below me waiting for me to return.

The plane touched down twenty minutes early, and I was concerned my family would be there to greet me. As we taxied the attendant again recognized me and again the plane applauded and I almost wept tears of joy. I was beside myself.

I was torn between running and walking slowly enjoying the stares of the local citizens who don’t see a lot of Joes and Jenny’s moving through their airport. I settled on a brisk pace to my loved ones.

As we embraced and talked a few folks came by to thank me. Soon my entourage and I would leave. My wife brought clothes for me to change into so we could celebrate with a dinner out.

Oddly, I recognized a pair of pants as having a tear in them immediately but couldn’t remember directions or some street names. Some things were pure muscle memory, and others were like amnesia. This pattern would continue for a few days, but that mattered not. I was home. Mission accomplished.

Rogue 3 OUT

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Home

I can’t sleep. I should be out like a light, but it is not to be. The two trips to the gym and marathon volleyball session would be enough on any normal day, why not today? Perhaps it’s anticipation or the nagging sensation when I have not cataloged my thoughts for too long.

I spent some time watching the moon, my last full moon rise this evening. I tried to take in every detail of it’s full countenance as this might be the last time I see the equatorial moon. It rose as a red light in the east and as it climbed in the nighttime sky turning to a blazing white. I estimated the illumination it was providing I hoped for the last time, a last vestige of my work here.

The team is sitting in Kuwait now, the end is near and I am reflective on what has transpired in the last year. Did I do what I set out to do? Was I successful? Could I have done better, and how? I suppose these are common questions during times of transition.

The answer to these questions at least for my part is yes, but one can always find fault and improvements. However, I don’t know that I’ll be volunteering to do this again. So I don’t know how much good a review would do other than my own sanity. These thoughts are likely just a distraction for the other deeper issues at hand.

We made promises to each other during our mobilization some out of bravado some out of fear, most out of self-preservation. A year ago we collectively agreed our mission was to get all of the team members home in one piece, accomplish the mission, and have fun if we can. As our movement is pending we can put a check mark in each of those boxes.

I think about what kept me going, what was my motivation this year, and while many things helped push, there was one overriding factor. This single thought kept me safe in situations that were hairy, kept me on my toes when I needed to be and provided the motivation that got me out of bed many mornings. Now I contemplate all that has happened in this year and all that I have to look forward to, and that single thought remains. Get home.

Getting home was important when buildings were being destroyed around me, when fire was directed at me regularly just for being there. “Get home”, was on my mind when we moved outside the wire, or when the enemy would lie in wait and strike with improvised explosives. It was on my mind when my counterparts would consternate me with indecision or decisions that were poor.

Get home was on my mind when faced with American officers who lacked the courage to do their jobs, and confounded me with obstacles. It was what kept my mouth shut in some cases and open in others. It was both a command and a request, it was a driving force. Get home is a solitary notion with multiple meanings.

Some times get home meant simply getting back to base, yet there was always a deeper meaning to the phrase for me. It was never just a place.

I am getting home to my house of dogs, whose inability to determine time, will wag their tails with rapture. I am getting home to friends who have watched over the homestead, who have sent care packages and emails, who have sent pictures of normalcy. I am getting home to co-workers who will surely hang on my every word and description of what I did here, when I do return to civil work. I am getting home to my mother and father who are proud of me and a sibling who has made me an uncle.

I am going home.

I am going home to her, the solitary overriding motivation of her. The one who has pushed me beyond my expectations before this and the one whose mere voice melted away the pain and anguish here. Through all the blood, sweat and tears, the very real scenes of carnage I will carry with me through all my days, the thought of her touch was inspiration when no other inspiration would do.

I am going home to the one who will have to deal with my reintegration to civilian life. The one who will be my rock, who has been my rock, whose endurance during this has been amazing to me. I am going home to my other half. I pray she’ll have me.

Rogue 3 OUT

Saturday, September 10, 2005

May the Road Rise to Meet You

Saying goodbye is never an easy thing with friends. Saying goodbye to a troublesome time or place is significantly easier, however when the two are linked it becomes more challenging. That is almost every Soldier and some Iraqis, will tell you the environment that is Iraq is harsh and unforgiving, though often they’ll use more colorful expressions. To leave this place, even the notion of leaving this place is a point of joy and pride.

It is a regular occurrence for Soldiers to say, less than positive remarks about a particular locale. Personally, I try to avoid these statements around the Iraqis I advise, because no one wants to hear their home is garbage. No one likes to hear they live in a pit of despair even if it is true.

Often I would catch myself caught in the juxtaposition of anxious to get home and away from all that is Iraq, and at the same time having genuine feelings for the Iraqis whom I lived and worked with for this past year. As my time comes to an end here I am more careful of what I say so as not to offend men I truly admire for their patriotism.

In our modern world of convenience it is rare the individual that fights for freedom like these men do. Patriots in America are the guy who leads a campaign to change his part of the world for the better, and the acts are usually small in nature but impact the greater good.

Patriots here are far more plentiful. In Iraq, patriots travel hundreds of miles out of their way to get home on leave. They hide their identity, or brazenly show their identity. The fake their deaths and continue to Soldier on in the face of threats and violence on their families and loved ones. They pool resources to make ends meet when their Soldier can’t make it home on time.

The phrase Inshalla hurts this culture by freeing them from accountability and responsibility. They will be successful if god wills it. At the same time that mindset can be incredibly freeing and help them survive in a truly inhospitable land. They will live if god wills it. Therefore, when someone dies it is god’s will and while saddening not crippling.

Our last night on our camp the Iraqis would host a banquet to welcome the new team and say farewell to the old team. These men, that are heroes in my book sought to honor us for our sacrifices to help them build their future. We coexisted with these men that risk their very lives simply by being in the Army.

I worked with the interpreters and my old boss MAJ Z, to document the history of the battalion and translate it, and we read that to the officers present. As I read it aloud and the interpreter read his copy in Arabic I was filled with a sense of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment. We fought side by side. We showed them the right way and let them lead.

This for some was a life defining moment. Some of my teammates will use this experience to propel them to new goals and jobs. For me this is something that will surely shape my life for years to come, but only part of the total package.

Small gifts and fond words were exchanged, tokens of our appreciation for each other. Pictures were taken and peers, comrades, friends even brothers embraced each other for one last time.

I left a note for my counter part upon his return and couldn’t help but include the words to the Irish poem:

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

The next morning Abu Ali our long time interpreter stood in the black pre dawn darkness holding a flashlight in one hand and touching the window of the Hummer with the other saying his final farewell.

This time it would be our last convoy. A small contingent of Iraqis joined us and I slept safe in the knowledge that they would lay down their life for any of us. True brothers.

Rogue 3 OUT

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Dog Days of Summer

The morning started like any other morning since our new team arrived with a scheduled combat patrol and all that preempts it. The sun a searing ball of orange and red was just cracking the Eastern sky. Except today was different in that it was our last combat patrol.

This time the new team, our replacements would lead the entire operation from an American perspective. That is to say, it would still be an Iraqi run patrol, but for the U.S. advisors the new team would be in charge of our movements.

The route was secured and we rolled in behind the main body of the patrol into the assembly area. Old habits and muscle memory took over, and I had to stop myself from doing the things I normally do in an assembly area to allow the new team to learn and grow into their role. Eventually, we set out at the rear of the formation and eventually pushed forward.

I looked at the last vestiges of the moon as it hung low in the western sky. It’s edges starting to fade with the sun’s rays, it seemed larger than normal. I enjoyed this vista for a moment, and hopped that would be the last full moon I saw in this land.

We stopped a few minutes into the patrol and from muscle memory I took a secure position, that the Iraqis immediately emulated. The new team’s executive officer asked me why I did what I did, and I told him it was a bit of muscle memory and it was setting an example for the IA (Iraqi Army).

The IA lieutenant in charge executed a smooth mission, deploying his unit accordingly. As we collapsed our security and started our movement back to our base we heard the report of small arms fire, and while the new team was borderline panicked the IA security element handled the situation calmly and professionally.

When we got back in the base, the new team leader called for a review of his team’s performance. Their boss asked me and MAJ B for any notes and I offered a few things I had observed, but generally gave praise. Meanwhile we the “old” team decided it was time to blow off some steam. CPT G had a supply of Titlist golf balls and I had found a sand wedge and five iron during my tour hear. With cigars in mouth, sunglasses on, we set out to enjoy one of our last days here, some of us wearing no T-shirt.

Now a golf purist may find this tragic, shocking even, but to a bunch of guys who have just about finished a year in Iraq it was a moral imperative. The golf balls apparently retail for about four dollars a pop. The Pro V and Pro V1 balls had a nice feel to them and even with the crappy badly worn club heads we were able to get some nice shots towards the fence line. One of the new team members SSG E, who arrived later, whacked one into the traffic nearby, to the amusement of all.

By the end of the morning, with the sun’s full countenance searing down, we found ourselves on the American base at the gym, making the last junk-food run and getting coffee at the coffee house. The coffee house was the refuge and escape for many Soldiers there. With the exception of the reinforcements outside, the interior could easily be mistaken for any coffee house at home. Terracotta tile floors, wrought-iron chairs with wooden seats, soft innocuous world beat music in the background, and a good cup of “Joe”, was enough to transport even the jaded.

In the afternoon, the bulk of us were in shorts and shower shoes or sneakers working on the, “tans we disserve”, as SFC F phrased it. We played horseshoes, ribbed each other, drank non-alcoholic beer or water, and basked in the twilight of the day and our tour. The unity of our team was never stronger.

Cameras were recording the giddiness, and general rambunctious behavior. Some posed some just got lucky with the shots. The Iraqis that watched saw a side of the Americans they had not witnessed for the entire year. They laughed and pointed, we laughed and pointed back and at each other.

In a few days we would start our movement back to our old base, then on to another location and so on and so on until we ultimately arrive back in the United States. Being this close to the end was a major distraction and thus not at the forefront of my mind. I stayed focused and spent the bulk of my time thinking of the immediate tasks to quell the sense of anticipation developing about my homecoming.

That late afternoon, I was approached by my counterpart. A man I have worked with closely for a year and come to not only respect but admire, was facing me and telling me in broken English he was leaving for his vacation before I departed his new base. The news saddened me.

We sought out an interpreter to ensure our true emotions were imparted to each other. He thanked me and said he learned a lot from me. I told him I too learned from him and he continually impressed me. This was not just some mutual admiration society, but true friends finally sharing their unspoken admiration.

I recall trying to figure out how this job would work with a peer before I left. The notion of communicating through an interpreter was mind boggling. Now, however it seems like a natural part of conversation. Knowing and trusting the interpreter is correctly translating is a comfort.

During our training Dr. John told us we would have fond memories of our counterparts and even consider many friends. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure this would be the case. Now, there is no question.

In Arabic culture to refer to someone as a brother is a sign of intimacy of dear friends. There is a brotherhood of warriors that is a sense of shared misery, anguish, and elation that warriors can all relate to. In conversations when I would use the word brother referring to Iraqis I meant the brotherhood connotation, however with this man it is the former.

My part in being the, “exit strategy”, is nearly over. I know I was successful, but can only hope my work will ensure fewer Americans have to be here.

Rogue 3 OUT

Friday, August 26, 2005

It’s A Beautiful Day

The day started before dawn with me looking skyward and enjoying the silence and serenity of the Iraqi country side at night. Little did I know it would end that way as well. The stars shone brightly and the arm of the milky way was still visible. I thought to myself this is the only time of day that I share darkness with the people back home. I stood in the turret as we started our movement in the pre-dawn darkness embracing the peacefulness of the moment.

The mission was to drive to our old base north of Baghdad and retrieve our new team and their gear. To do this I had to do some coordination with the local unit and the Iraqis to provide a truck to haul their gear. The Iraqi part was easier than the coordination with the U.S. unit which didn’t surprise me. Fortunately, all was falling into place and at the right time.

After this trip everything would change. After this trip a series of events would unfold that would propel me towards the end of my journey. After this trip, I start my process to go home. That is a good feeling to have as you enter the breech.

The traffic was nonexistent as it should be at that hour. The only people allowed on the roads are the military and police, so we didn’t expect much for the first part of our journey. We changed highways and soon found ourselves in what amounts to as the morning rush.

Cars and trucks usually move from our path as we drive, sometimes from their own choosing and sometimes from our insistence. We try to be polite but firm in these actions and have developed an array of techniques to provide the proper motivation so the populace sees things our way, ranging from nice to not so nice, for them anyway. The longer we drove the more frequently we had to draw on these techniques as the volume of traffic rose with the sunlight on our horizon.

I enjoyed as I normally do watching the changes in the sky and the landscape as the sun begins is slow climb into the Eastern sky and stokes the fires in the ovens of hell below. I wasn’t particularly hot this morning but I could feel the air warming around my face and the heat rising from the engine and transmission below my feet. The fronds of the palm tress turned from black silhouettes pressed against a blue background to their natural dark green against a light blue, their finger tips reaching into the air with a sharpness that makes them distinguishable at great distances.

I noticed things I had not on previous trips including a landmark that is clearly visible from the interior of our old base. I just never placed it on a map or the ground itself with any accuracy.

We arrived on the base and it felt like home. The familiarity of the speed bumps and chicanes of the entry control point, the procedures to gain entry, the smells of the local surroundings felt more natural than what I’ve lived in for the last six weeks. There were changes to been observed, new faces to see and friends to see. I was hopped up on caffeine and the excitement of the day.

We drove past our old barracks building to a new location where our team had been training for a week now, the last step for their preparations. The were participating in a program that was supposed to be based on the suggestions and reviews written by the Soldiers with whom I deployed from our training. What it amounted to was a feather in some officer’s cap, a waste of time as reported by all graduates of this, “course”.

As we approached their part of the base where they were housed I noticed decorations as most Iraqi Army units invest time on. Some are simple like sandbags along the edges of the road or writing Arabic words using painted rocks. Some are more complex like painting signs or murals on buildings. Or what we passed under which was apparently approved by the same U.S. colonel that I endured while working here, who didn’t recognize the hidden glorification of Saddam.

The military police battalion had crafted a pair of crossed swords over the roadway a miniature of the giant swords in downtown Baghdad. The difference was not just the scale but craftsmanship as well. These while made of steel looked more like an erector set or paper machete on some Rose Bowl float. I half expected them to fall on my head as we passed under them. I can only imagine the discussion about them during the base operations meetings.

We pulled into the compound and waited for our liaison and new team to arrive. When they did we briefed them and we split to take care of our personal needs. I visited some friends and of course that Mecca of capitalism the PX. I enjoyed pleasant banter and caught up on the goings on for the last almost two months.

Though the mini-reunion was short lived it was a forecast of things to come. We returned to our link up point where the new team was loaded and ready to roll. I was charged with briefing them about our convoy and route. They were green and you could tell. Some were ready to just get there, chomping at the bit, while others on the team were reluctant to move at all skittish at the sight of their own shadow. I likely didn’t help matters with the portion of the briefing where I outline courses of action in the event of enemy contact.

The return trip was uneventful, only hotter than the trip down. We arrived at our camp and gave a brief tour to the key locations then loaded them and took them to the American base nearby where they would be staying until our departure. Of course we had to again get a Jundi (Soldier) to drive the heavy truck onto their compound.

We arrived late in the day and a gate that normally takes mere minutes to pass through took over forty-five. Drenched with sweat I waited for the single Iraqi Sergeant to get badged and cleared to move on the gate with some twenty U.S. escorts.

We then struggled through the process of getting billeting for this team, even though the persons responsible for assigning rooms knew about their arrival for more than six weeks. We finally got the new team unloaded and we proceeded to head to the gate we entered to drive back to our camp. Problem was the gate was closed at night.

I refrained from blowing a gasket when a tower guard told me the gate was closed. Not because he was doing his job but because no one told us it would close less than an hour after our arrival with an Iraqi in tow. I used the analogy as I ranted to MAJ B of arriving at six flags one hour before closing time and no one from the park staff telling you, “the park will close in one hour.”

We finally made contact with someone who could remedy our situation but had to wait for their arrival at this gate. MAJ B took the Iraqi Sergeant to return his badge and retrieve his gear while I waited at the trucks.

I stood under the now night time sky again admiring the clarity of the stars, reminiscing about my first night outside a city in Saudi Arabia 15 years ago amazed at the stars. Again the stars were bright, again the milky way was visible, again serenity, again peace.

I listened to the military aircraft flying overhead and then observed something I’ve not seen very much at all in this year civilian aircraft flying overhead. I wondered where they were going, who was ridding on them and why. I thought about how many times I spent a weekend night away from modern civilization observing it passing me by, thinking about what people were doing in that modern society while I sat in the dark staring at the sky.

Rogue 3 OUT