Saturday, November 25, 2006

Shrapnel and Stones

A new klaxon stared to blare last night, just as Oz, Brooks, and myself were walking over to the laundry point.

There are two types of alarms here on on-post, the first of course being the Alert Status Siren, which I've mentioned before. This indicates some kind of imminent security threat, and is the most commonly-heard alarm in theater. The second, much more rare, only sounds in the moments before an impending mortar strike. I don't think most of us have ever even heard this warning. Not surprisingly, we all froze. Brooks was the first to speak.

"The hell is that?"

The grating noise was harsh in the cold evening air. I found myself reaching for my rifle.

"Incoming rounds," I replied. "Find a bunker. Now." To which Oz replied:

"Where, dude? There's nothing--"


The prerecorded voice cut him off. We all ducked, running like hell in the direction from whence we came. Three seconds later, a pop, flash, and metallic boom. The very ground shook beneath our boots. A mortar round, and close. I don't know where it hit, but by that time it didn't matter. Our only thought was to find cover. The night air became filled with the clamor of distant MP sirens. We all started shouting at once:

"Shit! Move! MOVE!"

"Go, go, go!"

"Freeman, this way! There's a hardened building!"


I followed Brooks' voice toward a nearby battalion headquarters, bursting in through the door as Oz slammed it shut behind us. A crowd of young soldiers loitering near the CQ desk fell silent, and stared at us a moment before going back to their conversations. We grounded our weapons and laundry bags, squatting against the walls in the hallway, hearts still thumping in our chests.

Several moments passed. I was still high from the adrenaline rush. I couldn't bear the waiting, so I got up, and as I often do, starting pacing. Brooks complained, of course; said it made him nervous. Though I've already had a few missions under my belt, as well as a few bunker runs, it seemed to me that this was my first "real" taste of war. It was the first time that I was honestly afraid for any reason, and as strange as it may sound, I can't help but remember the high, the rush of those few brief seconds. I'm no cowboy, and I'm barely an escapee from the dubious title of "pogue," but still, this was the first real experience I've had that made me understand that yes, this is a combat zone, and people die here. The surreality of all of it goes beyond my abilities to describe.

More surreal yet, before we'd even heard the "All Clear", we got right up and walked out the door, laundry bags in hand.

Shrapnel and stones may break our bones, but jacked-up uniforms will smoke us.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Consider the poor man.

You know the one. He's probably a minority; possibly an immigrant. You've probably seen him sleeping on the train going to work, or maybe you've seen him standing on the side of the freeway in traffic, trying to wash your windows. Maybe he's begged you for bus fare on a street corner, or tried to sell you some chintzy knicknacks as you walked out of your favorite cafe. Perhaps you've stepped over him, passed out on the steps to your apartment, as you've invited a date up for a late-night cup of coffee.

Sure, you might have been able to ignore him. Maybe you just pretended not to see him. Maybe you told yourself that he's not your responsibility. But I doubt that any among you could ignore the pang of shame in your gut, as you rationalized your own inaction.

Now, multiply that by an entire nation.

I had "haji guard" today, one of many assorted details we are assigned from time to time. Specifically, it's where soldiers escort packs of Iraqi nationals around base, shepherding them as they perform various acts of manual labor. The locals often come from miles around, usually from poor farming villages. They gather every morning at the gates, hoping to be allowed in to work. For a day's work they usually receive $10 U.S., and the danger present in taking such work for these men is high. The road outside the gate is often targeted by mortars, and people who come on post to work risk death by targeted killing.

Those who came in to work ranged in age from teenage boys to old men. They shivered in the cold morning air, and they chattered and laughed in throaty Arabic as they paced and smoked cheap cigarettes. They lined up when directed, and from there they were divided up into work crews, and escorted off by small groups of soldiers. We were required to wear full gear while performing our escort duties, and even when we arrived at our company area and doffed our armor, we were still required to have full magazines in our weapons.

Today, the workers (I hate the term "hajis") were moving sandbags around our trailers. They worked well, even though the labor must have strained many an aging back. We paused on occasion to chat and smoke cigarettes, and as we did a number of them approached us and offered to sell us any number of goods: Iraqi currency, fake Rolexes, exotic cigarettes. I tried to abstain, but ultimately bartered some dinari coins off of a young man named Haider. I listened to the men converse in Arabic occasionally, and though I didn't understand most of it, I did catch one man's impassioned ranting. I found myself wondering why he was so angry, but truthfully, I probably already knew.

I also talked briefly with one man named Faras, whom I asked about the dangers of working here, and about his family. Much of what he told me seemed to echo what I've already seen. During my last couple of missions, I've been struck by the jaw-dropping level of poverty that exists here. The homes are almost never more than crude mud huts, and the livestock all look to be dying of tuberculosis. Too many mouths to feed, and not enough food. These men are from the rural villages, and thus their lives are fairly peaceful, but still it's known that this area is a hotbed of insurgent activity. Honestly I'd be surprised if at least some of these same men hadn't, at some point, accepted a generous sum ($100 or more) to help emplace a roadside bomb. It's a sad thought, but having been poor myself, I can personally testify to the ugly choices that desperation lays out. Take our money one minute, take money to kill us the next. Democracy, I think, is a nice idea, but having full bellies and money for basic needs is a better one. And sadly, though many here suffered under Saddam Hussein, many more seem to have it worse now, as a direct result of the chaos caused by this war.

Imagine that little pang of shame you feel when you walk by the poor man in silence. Multiply by an entire nation.

Toward the end of our shift, Haider approached me again. I'd proven I drive a hard bargain, and I was proud to walk away with a minimum of my pay parted from me. I regarded him with mixed amusement and suspicion, but as he approached me this time he said nothing, only handed me an old bill for 50 dinar. "A gift," he told me. "You take this." Then he hugged me, a gesture which I returned, hesitantly at first, then more fully. Haider's salesmanly guile was gone now. His eyes were dark, and here again I saw shame, as I saw shame in Romano's eyes.

After a moment of this strange interaction, Haider pulled out a picture of his baby daughter, whom he told me was named Fatima. I found myself staring at a photo of a pale, dark-haired infant of six months. She was bright-eyed and smiling, and clearly resembled a bit of her father. I told Haider he should be proud. He smiled a bit at this, but then the exchange took on a more somber turn. Haider looked me in the eyes, and spoke again, haltingly.

"My country," he said to me, "we are many poor here. We cannot go to the cities, they try to kill us. We cannot work, there are not enough jobs. Your people have so much here--our history, our oil. You have our oil, and for this work, moving sandbags, I am paid 10 American dollars. I can barely buy food, let alone soap.

"Please sir, my daughter. I need soap, I need shampoo, for my Fatima, my baby. You have these things, yes? Please, sir. You help me."

His eyes plead with me quietly, and I hated having to stare back at them. It made me think of being twenty years old, and having to walk into the local St. Vincent de Paul in Escanaba, Michigan. I remember being a college-educated man, and having to walk up to the elderly woman at the counter and request a food package, and the burning loss of dignity I felt in uttering that request. I remember the disgust I had felt then; living in a glorified halfway house, working two jobs, eating a bowl of ramen a day and still not being able to afford a security deposit on an apartment. I looked back at Haider, and looked into those eyes, and I saw my old shame reflected back at me. Me and my gun, and my air-conditioned trailer, and my broadband internet in my living quarters, and the countless care packages from mother and wife and friends, all brimming with hygiene products and food that I will never be able to go through by my self.

More shampoo and soap and toothpaste than I will ever possibly need.

Such a simple thing. I convinced another guard to take my place briefly, and when I returned to my post, I came back with a Ziploc bag full of toiletries that would last this man and his family a month. I came up to him, pointing and saying the words back in English.

"Soap," I told him, "and, see, shampoo? This is toothpaste, and here are a couple of toothbrushes. This is skin lotion, for your baby, if she gets a rash. All these I give to you. Gift from me, ok? This is ziyen?"

I awaited his response, ending with the Arabic word for "good." Sure enough, Haider's eyes lit up, and he hugged me again, this time much more firmly. I couldn't help but smile. We sent Haider and his crew out the gate soon afterward, but not after another, more effusive stream of thanks and handshaking. I watched the locals leave, and suddenly felt better.

I don't support this war. I never have. But I'm here to serve, and serve I will. If nothing else, I hope simply that, at the end of this day, Haider talks about this with his friends, and remembers what I did, and maybe comes away thinking just a little better of us Americans. We may not be perfect, and we may even be the reason his country is falling apart. But maybe when he gets that offer to place a daisy chain, he might think twice about our conversation, about the talk of our families, and about the simple gift of soap, and remember that we're human too. Maybe by doing what I did today--giving away something of which I had too much in the first place--I helped secure my own safety in the eyes of this man, as well as the safety of other soldiers. Sure, it may be overly idealistic, but there's so little compassion in this line of work. I don't have the word tattooed into my skin without reason. Anything I can do here, I will do.

And so I did today. And for once, I can walk away from the poor man, having done right by the values inscribed into my arms, and I can feel no shame.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Ritual

"Once we roll out the wire," our section sergeant often
reminds us, "this shit be real." We all know to what he refers.

When the mission comes down, the following days become a long blur, filled
with packing and lists of pre-combat checks. Gear has to be loaded, and
convoy orders established. Downtime becomes a rarity, and as crunch time
approaches, tensions begin to run high. As the date draws closer, we are
reminded to "put on our game faces."

If all goes well, the chain of command tries to give us a day off before the
mission. This allows us to prepare the last of our gear, clean our weapons,
and do whatever it is we need in order to place ourselves into the combat
mindframe. Like professional athletes, many soldiers have specific rituals
which they must perform before mounting up for the days ahead. I am no

Before my mission, I spend the early portions of my day staging my gear.
This means reviewing packing lists, checking weapons and ammo, and hopefully
stowing my equipment in whatever vehicle I happen to be riding with in the
convoy. I like to get these things done as early as possible, but with
mission briefs and pre-combat inspections, the day before any mission still
manages to seem cramped.

Once all the basic objectives are achieved, I usually settle down for a nap.
Our missions are physically demanding, so a little rest is always a sound
proposition. Three hours if I'm lucky.

As the formation time draws near, I wake for chow, grabbing a to-go plate,
after which I retire to my room and finish with a little bit of light
housekeeping. I generally fix myself a cup of rooibos tea and smoke a pipe
out at the pavilion, taking a last opportunity to relax and soothe my

The final and most important part of the ritual comes roughly an hour or two
before mission time. I set up my altar, light some incense (technically
contraband), and perform zazen, meditating deeply in the Buddhist tradition.
This serves a dual purpose: on one hand, it clears my head for the
mission, and on the other allows me to organize my own spiritual affairs.

I allow enough time for one incense stick to burn off, and after cleaning up
my area again, I reach into my nightstand and pull out an empty notebook.
Only the first page has been used, and on it I have composed the lines of
verse, which I would consider my death poem. It's another old Buddhist
samurai tradition, and I leave the poem on my bed, so that if something
should happen to me, the person who gathers my things will find the poem,
and hopefully draw some final understanding of who I was. I hold faith that
the finder will know to whom the message should be sent.

As farfetched as it can seem, people do die out here. Things do happen. I
cannot choose when or where my end will come, but if nothing else, I can
make my peace now and so enter into the Void with calm and dignity.

We ritualize to stimulate, to focus, to draw strength. But we also
ritualize for a more important reason. The soldiers standing next to us in
formation could be stacked on top of us like cordwood tomorrow, and so we
turn to comforting practices and familiar dances.

All of this formality, for a possibility none of us dare discuss.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Sirens

I was relaxing in my quarters when the first siren split the afternoon sky.

I was laying in bed, reading Stars and Stripes, when an eerie wail roared across the base. I sat up, listening for other activity outside my trailer--explosions, shouts, footsteps--but heard nothing. Then the siren ramped up again. Over it I heard a male voice, prerecorded:

"Attention in the compound. Attention in the compound.

"This is the Command Post. This installation is at Alert Status: Red.

"Repeat--this installation is at Alert Status: Red."

Mortars. There was more, but by that time I was no longer listening. I grabbed my combat gear--kevlar helmet, armor, rifle--and hastily made my way out. I paused only to lock my door. The living areas were empty as I jogged down the stairs, and the only other person I was a soldier across the way. He, too, was on the way out. I turned right off my block and made my way toward the nearest bunkers.

About ten steps later, I heard a shout. "Freeman!"

I turned. It was Brooks, lumbering toward me, munching on a green apple. His Army-issue Birth Control Glasses glinted brown in the afternoon sun. He seemed unaware of the proceedings--probably returning from the chow hall.

"Yeah," I called back expectantly.

Brooks took another bite of his apple. "Hey," he said, "what's that alarm mean?"

You have got to be fucking kidding me, I thought. Brooks and I go back to Basic together, but when I went to my initial tour with the Reserves, he went straight to his first tour in Iraq. This is his second deployment, and he should damn well know what that alarm--hell, what any alarm means. I half wondered if he thought he was testing me, being the "new" guy. I glanced down at my gear, then up at him. I shook my head. "We're at Red, dude."

"We are?"

Christ. "Uh, yeah man. Come on. Get your fucking shit and let's get to the bunkers. Let's go." I turned to go.

The bunkers near our smoking area are the designated section rally point, in the event of mortar attacks. Technically, our living areas are surrounded by enough sandbags and Jersey barriers, I probably could have just kept on reading the paper. That said, this is my first unsupervised Red alert, and I didnt feel like taking any chances. I ducked as I entered the bunkers--no more than five-foot-high rows of U-shaped concrete blocks--and it was here that I found several other soldiers, all in various states of uniform. I dropped my kit next to me and started throwing on my body armor and helmet. Brooks wandered in several moments later.

"This is the section rally point," he drawled, "right?"

We were the only ones here from our squad, even our platoon. Most of the others were at chow. I nodded. "Yeah." I went back to fastening the velcro strips on my armor.

"Fuck it," he said, taking a seat against the opposite wall. "If I got time to go back and get my gear, I might as well stay there."

I looked up. "You're not grabbing your shit?"

"Naw, dude." The alarm sounded yet again.

"Well, shit, there's another one." He rolled his eyes. "You might as well get comfortable, Freeman, we're gonna be here awhile."

I complied, but that wasn't entirely true. Maybe five minutes went by before we were downgraded to Yellow, and after another minute or two we were given the All Clear. People started filing out of the bunkers, and I stripped down out of my gear to begin humping it back to my trailer. Honestly, the first mortar attack over a week ago was more intense. Last time, we'd been down at the motor pool, and we'd spent damn near half an hour listening to the alarms as insurgents and local field artillery traded rounds back and forth. I remember Brooks and Jansen yelling "Get 'em," and cheering every time a guard tower uttered bursts of fire from a SAW.

Based on what I've heard, these mortar attacks are more of a nuisance than an actual threat. They're notorious for their inaccuracy, and this is only the second since I've been here. But that being said, we are still located pretty close to the Wire, and we are still in a combat zone. As complacent as I can get being on the forward operating base, or FOB, I need these little incidents sometimes to remind me of where I am.

I'm in Iraq. I may not always be fighting--hell, I may never fight--but we're still involved in combat operations. I have to remember that sometimes. We've got a nice little living arrangement here, and sometimes it's easy to get too comfortable. So as much as one might worry, I'm glad that we got attacked today, and that nobody was hurt. Stuff like this wards off complacency.

In the words of our first sergeant, it's complacency, not the enemy, that kills.

Friday, November 03, 2006


Islam: (n) Arabic. 1. Judeo-Christian faith founded in 7th century CE. See
Muhammad. 2. An act of submission.

Our first mission took us to a remote patrol base south of Baghdad. We were
there to collaborate with a small infantry element, who've been providing
security to outlying farming communities. Though Engineers are not the same
as Infantry, we often find ourselves in the same situations, and so the two
groups have a good working relationship.

We worked 12-hour days, from 6 to 6, and slept in what i suspect was an
abandoned schoolhouse. We were just up the road from several Iraqi
farmhouses, and on many occasions, I found myself watching small families
work their tiny plots; picking lettuce or leading scrawny cows through
pasture much as they have for generations. Occasionally, some would look up
at toss us friendly waves. Still others regarded us balefully, or tried to
ignore us.

The living conditions were austere at best, but to be honest, I didn't mind.
We slept on marble floors under a pillared awning--rucksacks were our
pillows, and our lullabies the thump of outgoing mortar rounds. I ate MREs
and pounded dozens of bottles of water. I pulled two-hour guard shifts at
night, on the turret of a Humvee. I didn't shower.

On the third night, a hard thunderstorm hit us, and the rain left many
soldiers soaked to the bone. I pulled up the waterproof cover on my
sleeping bag and went back to sleep. In the morning, amid the cries of
roosters and baying dogs, a staticky voice wailed across the countryside,
tinny and desperate and beautiful:

"Allllaaaaaaaaaaah'u'Akbaaaaaaaar..." God is great. God is merciful.

My buddy Brooks hates the calls to morning prayer. They emanate five times
a day from the mosque up the road, and he says they creep him out more than
anything. I can't say I understand. To me, there is no greater expression
of faith than through a culture's music, and the faith of this culture is so
deeply wrapped in emotion that I can't help but be moved. I may not speak
Arabic; I may never have read the Qu'ran; but when I heard those ululating
songs of devotion, a shiver runs up my spine, and for a moment I, too, felt
compelled to close my eyes,

and Submit.

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