Wednesday, December 26, 2007

An Alpha Company Christmas

December 26, 2007

In the days leading up to Christmas here at Speicher, the Halliburton elves had done their best to introduce the holiday spirit to the base. At the DFAC (dining facility), cutouts of Santa decorated the walls. Plastic turkeys left over from a Thanksgiving display were coated with fake snow and added to a winter scene. On the bus, the radio played Christmas music between country hits. But it was easy to forget Christmas was approaching, easy to look at it as just another day.
The soldiers of STB’s (Special Troops Battalion) Alpha Company didn’t want to let Christmas pass unnoticed, so they took it outside the wire, and used the holiday as an excuse to give out candy, toys, and a variety of other gifts and useful items to families in the area.
At 8:30 Christmas morning, the soldiers gathered near their humvees, where Lieutenant Tom Ryder, wearing a Santa cap, delivered the briefing. Reading down a list of activity from the last twenty-four hours, it seemed as though LT Ryder was letting us know who had been naughty and who had been nice. In a sense, he was. His list focused more on the naughty, though-- the insurgents and their most recent bad behavior.
We loaded into the trucks. In my truck were three sergeants: Bill Ferguson, Adam Johnson, and Matthew Schultz; and specialist Anthony Jerbasi. The higher ranking enlisted men had turned out in greater numbers for this mission so lower ranking soldiers could have the day off. Also along for the ride was the company commander, Captain John Cunningham.
Before we could dispense any Christmas cheer, our convoy was redirected to an area where an IED had been discovered. Together with another convoy, the Alpha Company soldiers monitored the area until the IED was detonated by soldiers in a controlled blast, and it was safe to move on.
The convoy pulled up between two modest, mud and straw homes, and we waited for curious faces to appear. Slowly, cautiously, the occupants emerged, until it became clear our visit was friendly, and the children hurried to see what the soldiers had for them. They were given beanie babies and soccer balls, candy and other snacks, and it was fun to witness their happy confusion. At our next series of stops, the kids seemed more prepared for our arrival, and wasted no time getting to the Santas in camouflage. Somehow the same kids managed to appear at more than one house and made off with more than their share of the goods. Some seemed impossible to satisfy.
An Iraqi interpreter, Billy, had accompanied us on our rounds, but he spent most of his time assisting CPT Cunningham, who wanted to take the opportunity to speak with the senior family members. That meant the rest of the soldiers had to try their best to interact with the rest of the men, women, and children with only a handful of Arabic words and some makeshift sign language. Sometimes an Iraqi would volunteer a word in English, and everyone would nod with relief.
The last stop was more like the first. The kids were friendly but shy, and delighted to be the recipients of this unexpected windfall. A female dog and her puppy also benefitted from the visit, receiving beef jerky and crackers, and a great deal of attention from soldiers who obviously missed their pets at home.
With every box and bag empty, the soldiers of Alpha Company returned to the base. They had completed their mission and perhaps been caught up, however briefly, in the holiday spirit.
It will take more than beanie babies, soccer balls, and bags of candy to gain the support and trust of the Iraqi people, but maybe they will remember these small acts of kindness and they will think about working with us, or at least choose not to help those working against us. Watching the Iraqi mothers and fathers watch the soldiers kicking the soccer ball around with their kids, it seemed like this might be possible.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Back In Iraq

December 20, 2007

I never expected to find myself in Iraq again, but when I heard the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade was going back, I decided to join them. Again. This time they are spread out over several bases, large and small, from Bayji to Balad. I am in Tikrit at COB (Contingency Operating Base) Speicher, and I hope to see as much of this area as possible, and visit as many bases as possible, over the next several months.
It is impossible not to compare the conditions here in Tikrit to those of Kirkuk, where I stayed with the 1st Brigade last year. On the base, life is not so different. Speicher is bigger, with three dining facilities, two PXs, and, like FOB Warrior in Kirkuk, Speicher is also home to a handful of fast food restaurants including Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Subway. There is a bus that circles the base every thirty minutes, and many soldiers will be very tired of this bumpy ride a year from now, which is when they are scheduled to go home. They have been here since September, this being a fifteen month deployment. I know they felt twelve months was a long time to be away from their families last year, so this deployment will be that much more difficult.
The Salahuddin province, which includes Tikrit, Bayji and Samarra is different from Kirkuk, both in population and temperament. In Kirkuk, the Kurdish segment of the population was generally welcoming, and it was possible to feel quite safe in their neighborhoods. There is no such welcoming group here. Already the 1st Brigade has suffered several losses, already this is shaping up to be a more dangerous deployment than the last, a fact which cannot be lost on family and friends waiting back at home. Christmas in Clarksville will no doubt be bittersweet.
There are periods of calm here. The sound of progress is usually no sound at all, but sometimes an explosion is something to feel good about. After a few days of getting settled here, which meant a lot of walking around lost and a few desperate bus rides, I was able to go outside the wire (off the base) with members of the Special Troops Battalion (STB). Their mission was to escort an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team to Patrol Base Woodcock, a smaller base south of Speicher, where an assortment of munitions had been collected.
The trip to Woodcock took almost two hours. In my humvee, Sergeant Joseph Caldwell chatted with the gunner, Sandoval, and the driver, a female soldier named Garrison. I took in the sights. Our interpreter, Henry, seemed lost in his own thoughts. Caldwell, who was in charge of the mission, pointed out noteworthy spots along the way. We passed Tikrit University, and I wondered about the students. What were their hopes and dreams? Were they optimistic about the future of Iraq?
Closer to Woodcock, Garrison’s reflexes were tested. A cow wandered into the road, and she had to swerve to miss it. Not easy in a humvee.
We made it to our destination, and the EOD team examined the weapons that had been gathered. The flies had gathered too. I made a note to myself that the bathroom facilities must be crude, and thought I might stick to daytrips when it came to Woodcock.
Swatting the flies away, we gazed down at a few rockets, and then a large bag of anti-aircraft rounds was brought forward for inspection. In the light of day, in our hands and not the enemy’s, the materials did not seem so dangerous. But of course they were. The team carefully loaded the rockets and rounds into their specially designed vehicle, and the convoy accompanied them to an open field where they blew it all up. There is something satisfying about an explosion. An explosion we have orchestrated.
Whether the situation here has improved or not is difficult to judge. Weapons are still being discovered, with luck before they are used against us or innocent Iraqi people. We have more soldiers working out of smaller bases like Woodcock this time around, which brings them closer to the people and makes forging positive relationships much easier. And the better we understand each other, the better we will be able to help each other.
The trip back to Speicher was uneventful, no close calls with cows, no explosions of the unwelcome kind. It was the kind of trip you hope all of the soldiers outside the wire have all the time.
There are soldiers who are here for the first time, and soldiers who have been here two or three times already. It would be great if the people of Iraq got a taste of progress, of peace, and decided to settle for nothing less. It would be great if our soldiers could spend next Christmas at home.