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02/03/08

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DEPLOYMENT JOURNAL

                                                                                    Begun March 2006

Last Night Home

Embrace the Suck

Ground hog days…

Heat

Bugs

Mary

16 feet   

The Flight to Iraq

Noise

Explosion vs. Blast

Smell

The Boy and the Stick

Rain in the Desert

Dust Fog

Evening in October

SGT Matt

Mr. Singh

Combat patch

Word Humor

Sacrifices

The Loss of a Friend – 05DEC06

Christmas Letter 2006

20 JAN 06 – EASY 40

Salute

Bathroom Walls

Last flight in Iraq

What day of the week is it?

Homecoming

 

Last Night Home

            It is 2:15am on August 22, 2006.  This is the last night I will spend at home before going to Iraq.  I can’t sleep.  This is the last time I might ever be in my home.  The chances of me dying in this war are very small.  Statistically, I would probably be in greater danger being at home doing my state side job and going to Drill. 

            In the civilian world, I am a police officer.  I am also in the National Guard-not inherently dangerous, but I drive a few hundred miles a week commuting between Colorado Springs and Denver-in heavy traffic.  Knock on wood-never crashed-but seen a few fatal ones along the way.

            As a Cop you live with the knowledge that death may find you sooner that a stock broker-enough about that.

            In a way I feel like the condemned man on the last night. 

            I am at a point in my life where dying does not bother me-not being there for my wife and daughters-that gets to me. 

            God willing, in a year and a half, I will look back and be a better person for having been through this deployment and the World will be a little bit better. 

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Embrace the Suck

            “Embrace the Suck” is a running joke in a lot of Army units.  It is a term to describe and endear bad times.  In my 16 years with the Army I have found the Army, at times, has the unique ability to make fun actives miserable and bearable activities downright painful.

            The first step of the deployment was a trip to Ft Hood, Texas for pre-deployment training.  I guess the Air Force Academy Shuffle Board team had an out-of-town competition or a General in some office saw a way to save a few dollars.  So, rather than getting on an airliner for a three hour flight, my Unit and I, loaded onto busses and traveled over 25 hours to Ft, Hood, Texas.

            The “Suck” was “Embraced” 

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Ground hog days…

            This is a reference to the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day” in which the main character wakes up every day to the same day.

            The training my aviation Unit conducted was noticeably shy of aviation training.  We spent many days and nights doing convoy training and a lot of other things that were not related to flying helicopters.  This was not as bad as it sounds-on some level in the Army structure someone made the decision to train every soldier with a base of skills which they might need in the Iraq theatre; How to react to enemy fire, first aid, cultural sensitivity, law of warfare, etc.  This would not be a bad thing by itself, but this training was being conducted at the expense of aviation training.  As the deployment training schedule rolled on at some point the Unit would pack up the aircraft and be without aviation equipment while it traveled to Iraq.  This would be a better time to do all of the non-aviation training, unfortunately this did not happen.

            The perspective was best summed up by this interaction.  An Aviation Officer was speaking with an veteran Infantry soldier.  The Infantry soldier was trying to convey the importance of the “Green Training”, close-quarters shooting, convoy operations, etc.  The Aviation Officer asked the Infantry soldier how many times (when he was in Iraq) he piloted a helicopter.  The Infantry soldier replied, “zero”.  Which is how many convoys, room clearings, and close quarter combat situations aviation pilots and mechanics will most likely be in. 

Of course, a soldier anywhere may find themselves at a given time in a bad situation, but the focus of the training we did was 80% on things we might do 1% of the time.  I am not a primary line pilot, but I will be flying the Blackhawk helicopter as a part of my duties; in 5-months I have flown less than 5 hours.

            The days roll by and your memory of what you did the day before becomes clouded, with memories of prior days and weeks.  I am sure on some level this is what prison must feel like.  Away from your loved ones, living in a room, only looking forward to when you will next see loved ones.

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Heat                                                                                                    August 06

            The heat of Kuwait and Iraq have no words that accurately convey the condition.  “blast furnace” comes close. 

When I first walked down the steps of the airliner that brought me, and the rest of the soldiers to Kuwait, I felt the jet engine exhaust blast as I came out of the plane in front of the wing.  I became disoriented.  There was no jet blast in front of the wing.  The jet exhaust was behind the wing.  The wind was hotter than any wind I had ever felt, and it was night. 

If you inhale inside a dry sauna you can feel the heat scorch the inside of your nostrils.  The same thing happens in this heat, only you can’t leave it.  The feeling is stifling, overwhelming.  A soldier said it best when he said; “You really think you are gong to die in the heat, but you don’t-and you keep going.”

The hottest temperature I felt was over 140F.  I have been told the hottest temperature ever recorder in the world was only 136F.  This temperature did not take into account the heat reflecting off a hot runway, or in the dark green metal cabin of a helicopter. 

I had always wondered, in pictures I have seen of the desert, everyone wears long sleeves and long pants.  I assumed this would make you hotter.  I learned quickly when the temperature creeps past about 110F it is actually cooler to keep skin covered.  Your body temperature is cooler than the surrounding air.  Exposed flesh quickly overheats.

You sweat more in this environment, but because of the heat and low humidity-you are always dry.  Clothes washed and placed soaking wet on a line outside in the middle of the day are bone dry within an hour.

You learn to sleep in a pool of your own sweat.  

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Bugs

Some say the desert is mostly devoid of life.  I can say first had this is not true.  In the harshest deserts of Kuwait and Iraq there is ample life, but on a much smaller and more annoying scale.

Mosquitoes are ever present; more so when one tries to escape the oppressive sun for the shade.  The flying tormentors become a constant companion. 

Attempt to cover exposed skin with desert sand and the Sand fleas wait to fest.  At times the Sand fleas seem to be in league with mosquitoes as your body becomes an open food source.

Night and sleep might otherwise provide some respite from this torment, but unseen bed mites are a frequent sleeping companion.

You learn to ignore the discomfort and drive on.

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Mary

            Mary is a pretty young lady, 23 or 24 years old who works in the Flight Operations office at a US airfield here in theater.   He job consists of filing flight plans, occasionally talking on the radio to aircraft and general administrative duties.  In the US she could be employed at any airport in the country making $10-15 dollars per hour.  She used to be in the Air Force, as a lower ranking enlisted person, where she learned the job of working in the administrative office of an airfield. 

She is a civilian, working for a defense contractor providing support to the US military.  Her days are long, 12 hour shifts with maybe only a day off per month.  She is paid approximately $120,000 per year to do this; over $9,000 per month with room and board provided.

She plans on working this job for 4-5 years and then semi-retiring for the rest of her life.

The contracted janitor from Pakistan, cleaning the same office makes barley $100 per month. 

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16 feet                                                                          one day in August, 06

            Flying in the desert has it’s own unique challenges.  Because of the haze, most of the time you can’t discern where the horizon ends and the sky begins.  This makes it difficult to “feel” when the aircraft is pitched up or pitched down. 

There is also very little “terrain relief” (patterns, rocks, vegetation) which makes it very difficult to determine what your altitude is by looking at the ground.

This day was one of those days.  I was doing a training flight in Kuwait, prior to “going over the burm” a.k.a. going in to Iraq.  It was dusk, making it all that more difficult to fly in the reduced lighting.

I was flying with an experienced pilot who had flown many orientations.  I was on the controls, flying 100 feet at about 130kts (150 mph).  We traded the controls back and forth a number of times while I became accustomed to flying at that at altitude.  On a number of occasions I would lose focus for a second or so and the aircraft would sink to around 60 feet or rise to up to 130. 

At one point I transferred the controls to the other pilot and began to work inside the aircraft (I was looking at the radios and instruments-not outside, not an unusual thing) I saw the altitude was starting to drop and told the other pilot “altitude”, to inform him he was below the altitude we were targeting (also not unusual).

            If you have ever woken from a groggy sleep and looked at a clock and not immediately realized what the numbers were saying to you, then you can begin to identify what happened next.  I looked up at the altitude indicator and saw the green digital “16” readout.  In what must have happened in less than a second, my mind did not immediately grasp what the “16” was telling me (16 feet above the ground!)-and we were descending.

We both must have realized what was happening at the same time-because we both pulled up on the controls, bringing the aircraft back to a safe altitude.

Another quarter second of inattentiveness and we all would have been in the middle of a 14 million dollar bonfire spread over a quarter mile of the desert floor. 

We were lucky that day.

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The Flight to Iraq

            I have never been in combat.  As a police officer, I have had my share of scrapes and adreline-fueled events.  But going into a combat zone is another experience altogether.  The night before I flew north into Iraq from Kuwait I conducted my PCC’s (Pre-Combat Checks), examined my gear and weapon to make sure all was ready.  For the first time I was given ammunition and not expected to account for it.

            I remember loading bullets into the weapon’s magazine (“clips” of ammunition which are inserted into the rifle, thinking - these bullets may end up being fired at another human being.  Being that if I were to use the weapon, it would probably be a defensive survival situation, I only loaded one tracer round (bullet) 2d to the last bullet of the magazine. 

            Tracer rounds are bullets with a phosphorus tip, which glow when fired.  This is the red (or green) dot one can see traveling to the target when a rifle is fired.  For the operator of a machine gun, a series of tracer rounds enables the gunner to “walk in” a burst of machine gun fire on a target.  In my case using a single tracer round at the end of the magazine of bullets lets me “see” that I only have one bullet left in the chamber of the rifle and I have to reload.  I only put in one because “tracer rounds” may help you find your target, but they can also help your target find you.   

            In 16 years in the Army, most of it in aviation, I have never flown or ridden in the CH-47, the Army’s large twin rotor helicopter.  It is a fine machine, with an excellent safety record, but the thought of flying in an aircraft that can have a mid-air collision with itself has never left me.  I would fly into my first combat zone in this aircraft.

            I remember looking at the setting sun as I stood on the rear loading-ramp of the running helicopter, weighted down with body armor, weapon, gear and ammo.  It was over 110F and I could feel the sweat soaking under my body armor.  Inside the helicopter was hotter.  Although the cabin is quite spacious, after I strapped down to the troop seat, with armor and gear around me, in the oven-level heat breathing became a focused effort. 

The noise level in the back of a running CH-47 helicopter makes voice communication impossible.  You are effectively a mute.  The crew uses helmet intercoms to communicate, but passengers are little more than moving baggage to them. 

            I watched as the tail gunner, who sits on the end of the ramp, loaded his belt-fed mounted machine gun as we left the ground.  The sky was darkening and as we flew north.  As the light faded, the back of the helicopter looked out over a black abyss.

            I used a hand-held GPS to track our movement.  I watched on the small screen as we crossed onto Iraq.  The heat was still stifling and in the blackness of the cabin area of the helicopter, the air moving through was hot.  The hours passed by, and fatigue set in and was hard to fight off.  I would periodically nod off, then jolt awake with the movement of the helicopter; becoming more fatigued each time I nodded off.

            We eventually landed at Balad Air Base many hours later.  The fatigue I felt was only matched by my disorientation.  I could only imagine what it must be like to have to fight after a ride like that.  I soon found the baggage truck and caught a ride to a temporary tent set-up where I immediately passed out.

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Noise

            There is no silence, ever.  Generators growl and churn 24hrs a day.  HMMWV’s (Hummer’s), trucks,  busses and military vehicles of all descriptions move over the base at all hours of the day and night adding to the noise.  Day and night there is the continuous high-pitched wine of helicopters and airplanes.

The noise from a helicopter is an interesting thing.  Three things on a helicopter produce noise, the engine, the main rotor, and the tail rotor.  The turbine engine produces a high-pitched never-ending scream.  The main rotor produces a low-pitched whirl and the tail rotor, oddly enough produces more noise than the other two; a very high pitched whine that travels further and is more deafening than the other two.

This noise is punctuated frequently by fighters and other jets taking off.  The launch of a fighter aircraft in a war zone is an awe-inspiring event.  The fighter’s launch with full after-burners, which mean the jets engine has the maximum fuel dumped into it with the jets exhaust nozzle wide open.

We are only about ¼ mile from the runway.  You first hear the blast of the jet engine behind the concrete mortar barrier.  The sound cannot be described as noise.  It is a continuous concussion that you feel in your chest, and a rumble, which radiates through the ground into your feet.  As the fighter leaves the ground and climbs above the barriers, the only thing visible is the 50-foot long white flame tail from the engine.  As the airplane reaches the end of the runway, it pulls-up to an almost vertical climb.  The white-hot comet climbs vertically into the night sky rising thousands of feet in just a few seconds.

This is usually followed by the launch of a second fighter less than a minute later.

While these jets are launching, one would risk permanent hearing damage if you did not cover your ears.  To see and hear it once is, awe inspiring; to experience it dozens of times a day, is unnerving.  

Periodically, mortars (incoming) explode with a dull thump.  I am told if you ever hear one ripping through the air before impact, you have less than a second before it impacts.  I once asked how long you have to get down if you hear it coming. I was told: “The rest of you life” by a seasoned soldier. The mortars fired into the base are generally at the maximum distance their range will allow, and at very shallow angle.  Like a rock thrown to be skipped across water as opposed to arcing basketball shot.  The insurgents fire these mortars from the most distant possible point to avoid the counter artillery fire and roving Coalition patrols.  The insurgents know, being seen by an American sniper, Predator aircraft, or Apache helicopter gunship, standing next to a mortar tube can mean certain death.

Gunshots and automatic weapons fire are also not uncommon.  Guard towers on the perimeter of the base have exchanged fire with insurgents.  On occasion, the Apache helicopters will fire their 30mm chain gun at targets on the outside of the perimeter.  There is no test firing, when you hear gunfire-it is a safe assumption it's being shot at someone.

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Explosion vs. Blast

            There is a difference between an explosion and a blast.  If you ever hear an explosion, you might ask yourself if you want to get down or if you are inside a building or room, if you should look outside.  It rattles your nerves.

            You don’t just hear a blast, you are a victim of it.  The first question you ask yourself is “Is it safe to get off the ground?”  You are on the ground before you have a chance to think.  The only thing you look for is something that will protect you from the next blast.  It rattles your soul.

            I, so far, have only experienced one event I would consider a blast.  I was in my trailer room when it happened.  When it happened, I dove to the floor without thinking, I remember seeing items falling off shelves and picture frames coming down.  I thought for sure the window would shatter, but it held.  I rolled next to the sandbag protected wall and waited for the next blast with my ringing ears covered.  It never came.

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Smell

            Burning plastic garbage, fuel exhaust, sewage, industrial toilet chemicals, body odor – all combine to produce a mixture of smells I can only describe as eye-wateringly retched.  This smell is with you 24 hours a day on FOB Anaconda.

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The Boy and the Stick                                                  08OCT06

            The event was over almost before I could react to it.  We were the lead UH-60 in a flight of two.  We were just north of Baghdad over some moderately populated farm areas.  I was left seat and on the controls at the time.  We were about 120 feet at about 130 KTS (150mph)-so the ground was moving under us very quickly.  I was looking 500-1000m in front of the helicopter looking for any thing that might be a threat.  As we approached a mud-walled courtyard attached to a farmhouse I saw a young boy, probably about 12 or 14 years old run out from a shed carrying something, which he quickly raised to his shoulder like a rifle pointing at us.  We were almost on top of him, 200-300 feet away; the right side gunner made a call, indicating saw the threat and had a “bead” on him (machine gun sighted on the target, ready to fire) (Gunners do not need permission to fire if “they” perceive the aircraft is threatened).  A woman appeared from the farmhouse and must have been yelling at the boy because he lowered what I now saw was a stick.  As we passed over him I looked back and saw the woman beating the boy.  The gunner in the back of the helicopter said “That’s right, I teach my kids not to poke the bear with a stick also.”

            I’m not sure how close the gunner was to firing.  Fortunately, for all of us, he made the right call.  Had we fired, believing it was a real gun-we would have been in the right, the boy would be dead and we would have to live with the decision.

            Life is such a fragile thing. 

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Rain in the Desert

            You would think the first rain of the season in the desert would be a refreshing experience.  Maybe somewhere else, but not here; the first rain drops strike the ground and the sun baked dust is kicked up.  The air becomes thick with a fine dust that penetrates everything.  We Americans, who devote so much energy to cooling the air spaces we live and work in with air conditioners, now those same air conditioners suck in the fine dust particles and cover everything with a thin layer of grit. Food, clothes, everything.  As the rain continues, the sky seems to rain mud.  I guess what should be cleansing drops, falls through the dusty air and by the time the drop reaches the ground it is a drop of mud.  The result is mud and dirt streaks on everything.

            After a very short time, the ground is soaked and the fine dusty sand is replaced by sticky mud.  The kind of mud you can’t wipe off, only smear from one place to another.

The air becomes humid.  Clothes no longer dry out.  

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Dust Fog

            If you have ever awoken on a foggy morning and only been able to see about 100m, then you scratch the surface of what a dust fog (not a dust storm) looks like.  Unlike being in a cool water mist which you can feel burn off as the sun rises.  The “dust fog” hangs in the air all day.  When you look at the sun through the dust, it looks like a dull globe in the sky.  The heat begins to build, and the dust feels more stiffening.   This hot blanket of dust is made all the more uncomfortable when you realize you are breathing in all the fine dust particles.  Then, some dust does settle and it leaves a tan talcum powder sheen on everything-inside and out.

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Evening in October

As a Staff Officer I have the freedom to conduct MBWA (Management By Walking Around).  On this particular evening I wandered over to the MEDEVAC (helicopter air-ambulance) operations center.  In many ways it feels like a firehouse, which I am used to as a police officer-(always the best coffee); relaxed and easy going – until a call comes in.  Then it is a controlled and orchestrated sprint to get a 7 ton helicopter and a crew of four off the ground in less than 8 minutes.  This includes the planning time for the crew to be updated on any “hot-spots” they must avoid when going to the emergency.

When I arrived at the Ops. Center it was relaxed and there were few people around because it was late in the evening.  As it turned out, within minutes of my arrival a “9-Line” MEDEVAC request came in. 

A “9-Line” as it is referred to, is just that; 9 lines of information sent over the radio that gives a MEDEVAC crew all the information they need to accomplish the mission; things like –the number of casualties, types of injuries, the location of the landing zone, how the landing zone is marked.

As I watched the radio operator writing down the information and yelling to the crews pertinent details to get them moving, there was a noticeable reaction when the patient information was called out.  3-year-old child with shrapnel wounds to the head, neck and torso.

As a police officer, I have been to many child injury calls, difficult for all officers-but this caught me by surprise.  Shrapnel wounds?  3-year-old?  Those are things, which in a normal world do not go together.

The flight crew seemed additionally motivated, and the helicopter was lifting off the pad as I walked out of the Ops Center a few minutes later.  I watched the helicopter depart for the POI (Point of Injury).  The POI was close to the base and this would be a quick mission.

In the time it took me to reach the hospital landing pad, the MEDEVAC helicopter was already there.  The child has just been brought into the emergency room.  As is the case with child injuries in any emergency room, everyone working in the area seems to have and eye and an ear on what’s happening with a child.  I was no exception, as I stood by the entrance door. 

The child was screaming as a huddle of doctors and nurses examined the small form on the ER gurney.  The child’s parents (I’m guessing) stood close by.  They were obviously Iraqi and clearly in shock between what had happened to their child and the maze of technology that surrounded them.  I also detected a sense of relief that their child was receiving the highest level of medical care a first world country could provide.

I watched for a few minutes as the child was being treated, screaming the whole time for his mother and father, who stood as close as they could.  Before I left, I asked one of the ER Technicians what the prognosis for the child was.  He told me the child was in bad shape but it was a good sign the child was crying (meaning the child was still conscious).   Even with years of emergency work, there is only so long you can listen to a child cry in pain.

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SGT M

            A good kid with a big heart, a little on the different side.  He has multiple tattoos including a scene from “Mystery Science Theater” tattooed around his upper arm and the Bible passage from “Phillipians" on his forearms.

Has been known to say and at times do some really off the wall, but funny things.

            While in Pre-deployment training at Ft. Hood, SGT M voluntarily removed his gas mask in the gas chamber (exposing himself to tear gas), because someone told him it would help cure his head cold.  I told him, I told his parents I would watch out for him, but “I can’t protect him from stupid”.

            His favorite food is Chilpolite burritos.  While at Ft Hood, because there was not Chilpolite restraunt, he had his girlfriend send a Chilpolite burrito to him in the mail.  Not sure if he ate it or not.

Other notable comments or  “M's”;

“Minnesota is like Canada’s Mississippi”

“I always thought it would be fun to pee in the pool; while standing on the deck 5-floors up”

“I want a fish, can someone send me a fish in the mail?”

While crumpling paper and putting it into the burn barrel: “I feel like I work for Enron”

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Mr. Singh

            Mr. Singh is from India.  He works in a small shack outside attending to two bathroom trailers in our compound.  His days are spent cleaning toilets and refilling toilet paper.  I often give him small items that are sent to soldiers, which will never be used (soap, hand creams, toothpaste), because they are in so much abundance.  On a number of occasions I have sat with him and drank chi tea, which he makes in his shack.

He has been here for 6 months.  He works for a Turkish company owned by a British firm. 

            In India he is a professional accountant and makes the equivalent of $60 per month.  Here he works cleaning toilets and makes $500 per month.  This might not sound like much, but his wages are further diminished by the expense he must pay to travel to Iraq from India.  In his broken English he explained it costs him 7 months of wages to travel to and from Iraq from India.  He expects to work here for 2 ½ years.  He sends money back to his brother who cares for his family.  He works 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week-no vacation, no days off.

            His family is back in India.  He is married and has one 8 year old son.  He explained his wife can have no more children after an operation following the death of his new-born daughter.  He provided no more detail than this, and I asked nothing more.  He speaks on the phone to his wife about once a month, which is all he can afford.

            He expresses great fondness for America and soldiers.  He has befriended many here and makes tea and bread, which he shares freely.  He wants to visit America one day, but that dream is very far off for him. 

He has a faded and well-worn English to Punjab school textbook.  His English, spoken with a British accent is reasonably good, but he expresses difficulty with slang.  “Go away” – “Go”: meaning to move forward; “away”: meaning far off.  I never thought of this as slang-but to someone from a literally translated language, it is difficult for them to understand.

            “Singh”, he explains is not just a name, but also identifies his geographical roots (Punjab, India) and religion, Seik.  People of the Seik faith system are many times confused for being Muslim Arab, because of the Turbans and beards men of the Seik faith display.  

            He stated openly he strongly dislikes Islam, because of the violence it brings in the world.

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Combat patch

            The uniform and specifically, the patches on an Army uniform have specific and emotional meanings for soldiers.  What may appear to be just unique or colorful patches are in fact strong banners of identification and status.  Probably the one patch which carries the most meaning and status, is the right sleeve combat patch.  Just wearing one indicates you have been deployed to a combat zone.

            The type of combat patch also has meaning.  The patch is representative of the unit you went to a combat zone under.  Some patches are more recognized than others.  The 101st Division-the Eagles head with “Airborne” tab and the 82nd Division with the distinctive “AA” (All American) insignia are immediately recognized among soldiers.

              My Unit has been presented with the 36th Infantry Division patch, it is the unit we are mobilized under, our higher headquarters.  The 36th Infantry Division has a distinguished lineage.  Audie Murphy, the hero from WWII served in the 36th ID.  The patch looks like an Indian arrowhead with a “T” emblazoned in the middle.  This design is from the history of the unit.  When the 36th ID was first formed during WWI it was comprised of soldiers and units from Oklahoma and Texas; the arrowhead represents Oklahoma and the “T” represents Texas.

            Some in the unit, from other states, feel it is too much a Texas patch because of the “T”.  I am undecided but wear the patch because it is what I have earned.

            A soldier is not just able to wear the combat patch of the Unit they served under, but also the higher echelons of command, each represented by a different patch.  I will be interested to see what patch the soldiers wear when we get home.  Do they keep the “T” patch or change to one of the higher echelons of command they are also eligible to wear the patch of.

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Word Humor

            While one may think of a military Tactical Operation Center (TOC) as fast paced, always busy high-tech nerve center, in actuality, the pace is much more sporadic.  While their are times of very heavy workloads there are also long periods of time with little or no activity.  Give soldiers time to think and they will surprise you with what they can invent to pass the time.  One “game” the soldiers of our TOC would routinely play was the “Word of the Day”.

            There are a number of versions of this game.  In one version, If you have seen the movie “Super Troopers” and are familiar with the police officer “meow” scene then you understand this game.  In the movie, a police officer made a routine traffic stop.  During the traffic stop, the officer randomly inserted the word “meow” while speaking to the confused motorist; i.e. “Meow please see your license?”

            In another version, an obscure word is selected and participants are expected to work the new word, seamlessly into briefings or communications.  "Obfuscate" was the last word of choice.  Overheard in a shift-change briefing "This slide ensures the subject is not obfuscated".   An expanded vocabulary never hurt anyone. 

            The words our soldiers used were varied, but most always had a common theme, for example "Drinks".  One soldiers was adroitly overheard, while speaking on the phone: 

 “Sir, I don’t have that information in front of me, I will have to check the “SODA” report and get back to you.”  One can almost be guaranteed; if you give an Army acronym no one has heard before, many times it will be accepted without question.  In this rare case the soldier was asked and quickly came up with "Status Of Daily Activity" report.  ...and the asker was never the wiser.

…and there were, of course many phantom soldiers referenced in daily conversation:

“SGT Fanta (drink reference) from B Company is on that duty roster.”

“Private Carola (car reference) over in A Company was given the message.” 

Of course my game was to catch them at the game and call them on it.  I am sure I missed more than my share of 'word games'.

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Sacrifices

            One young soldier in our section was in her last semester of college at University of Northern Colorado.  She had one instructor who refused to allow her to turn in some required assignments early and counted the few classes the soldier would miss against her.  Now, the soldier has to repast the semester and can not graduate.  Some who don’t support the war will take it out on the individual soldiers.

            There are a number of people who will claim an injury is worse than it is or maybe even fake an injury to avoid a deployment.  What you don't hear so much about are the soldiers who hide injuries and illnesses so they can serve with their units.  It was not until later that I found out, but one SGT in our unit continued through the deployment despite having torn tendons in his shoulder which later required surgery. 

            Many people bring up the issue of women who become pregnant to avoid going to a combat zone.  This happens, no question.  What does not make the news are the women who terminate pregnancies in order not to let down their unit or because of their desire to serve.  Plenty of moral issues there; but it happens.

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The Loss of a Friend – 05DEC06

            This is a war zone and people die.  There have been casualties in other units, but thus far I have not known anyone.  We all live here knowing anyone of us could die at any time; helicopter crash, mortar round, sniper – who knows; we just keep doing our job and counting days until we go home.

            Tonight I just learned my friend Ken Jordan was killed.  He was shot.  The thing that makes his death all the more difficult to handle is he was not killed in Iraq.  Ken is a brother police officer and was killed on traffic stop, in the line of duty.

            I am torn, I want to go back and join my fellow officers and grieve, and get back in the fight they are in; but I am in a fight here.  I am still processing this. 

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Christmas Letter 2006

This is my part for my families annual "Christmas Letter":

Hello and Happy Holidays to everyone. 

This is Chris in Balad, Iraq.  I am doing well.  First of all I want to thank all of you who have sent cards and care packages-I am so blessed with a wonderful family and cherished friends.  I ask your pardon if I have not responded to each of you individually.

Now a little about what's been going on here.  The mission of my Army unit is to fly helicopters.  We fly more than 50 helicopters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Among the many missions we fly are moving troops by air, so they are exposed to less danger than on the ground, and conducting medical evacuation of the sick and wounded (both American and Iraqi-military and civilian).

As a Unit we have flown over 10,000 hours, and moved thousands of troops and millions of pounds of cargo, all over the country.  The fact that we have not lost any aircraft, and have had very few enemy engagements is a testimate to the proficiency of our crews and work that goes into planning safe missions; and most certainly, the support of the vast majority of the people of Iraq.

I realize many have strong reservations about the US involvement in Iraq.  I can tell you after being here and seeing the abject tyranny and crushing poverty the people of Iraq lived under this a worthwhile cause we must continue.  It is also clear to me the US and the Collation stopped a global threat with the toppling of Sadam's regime and war industry. 

A difficult road lies ahead.  Continued effort in all areas - military, civil, humanitarian, and media will be needed for many years to come.  Hopefully one day the people of Iraq and other parts of the world will be able to live under governments that recognize the things we as Americans so many times take for granted, such as the rule of law, civil rights, and freedom from tyranny.

In this season of love, please keep the soldiers and the people of Iraq in your prayers.  I wish you all a Merry Christmas and peaceful New Year.

Peace,
Christopher

PS-for any of you wanting to send care packages I am deeply grateful.  Because I have more here than I will ever use I ask you to go to "www.anysoldier.com" and pick a soldier who might not
otherwise have such support as I do, and send one to them.  Please give preference to our young soldiers with ranks like PVT, PFC, SPC, and 2LT; they more than most, need to know they are supported.

 

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20 JAN 06 – EASY 40 

            Maybe it was an omen when I said I did not know anyone who had been killed in theater.  On 20 January 2006, a UH-60 Blackhawk, call sign EASY 40, carrying 12 soldiers was shot down.  There were no survivors. 

            I knew the pilots, CPT Lyerly and CPT Taylor.  I saw them both the day prior.  Ironically, I last spoke with CPT Lyerly while he sat a computer and planned the doomed flight.  I still expect to walk into the office and see them where I last saw them.

            This was a hard loss for me, for all of us.  All the soldiers on that aircraft were and are heroes to me.     

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Salute

            It was a routine flight, if there is such a thing in a combat zone.  We were a flight of two UH-60s flying a low-level day flight over a large expanse of rural desert and scrub farmland.  It is not unusual to see a single mud walled farm house or other structure seemingly out in the middle of nowhere as we fly over the harsh terrain of Iraq. 

            One thing which was unexpected to see so far from any town was a dirt soccer field with a group of teenage-kids playing a heated match.  I saw it in the distance and was struck by how far from any town or houses it was.  The players must have traveled for miles to this remote spot. 

            As we flew closer, I could see them more clearly and then something amazing happened.  Almost as if they were following an unwritten script, they all stopped the soccer game and formed a single line facing our helicopters and they all gave a rigid military salute to us as we flew past.

            I was absolutely awestruck; the hair on the back of my neck stood up.  As we flew past I was reminded there are those here who stand with us.

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Bathroom Walls

          Bathroom walls over here, specifically the walls of plastic “porta-jons” and toilet stalls are not immune from the writings of bathroom soldier-poets.  I have read many “colorful” writings mostly profanity, occasionally a note about a “favorite” commander and of course the required Chuck Norris sayings.  Like, “Chuck Norris’s tears cure cancer – but Chuck Norris has never cried”.  If you are not familiar with some of these sayings, it’s worth an hour on the internet to look some up. 

          I have also seen some gang graffiti.  As a police officer, I can say it is “minor” gang graffiti.  I have yet to see it used to mark territory and I have yet to see any “cross-outs” (meaning opposition gang threats), this indicates the gangs are not an ingrained issue.   The areas I work in show it to be isolated and not overt. 

          One interesting thing I have found is that the closer a unit is to combat the more prayers show up as bathroom writings.  Interestingly, I have yet to see a prayer written which has been defaced by another author.  I recently returned from a remote base with a lot of troops who go “outside the wire” on a regular basis.  Somehow the prayers seem much more “real” here – some are quite amazing. 

Here is one I found and felt compelled to pass on (from Tallil Iraq, Bathroom L-10): 

Now that we see eye to eye

I will give you my dearest prayer

that will hopefully one day make you feel safe.

Dear Lord

I am a sinner

I’ve thought of lust

and have been angry for

questions not answered.

I’ve seen peace for a moment

but now is just a word.

Has my faith lost touch?

Have I praised you enough?

Have you shown me the way

towards your precious hands

where Jesus awaits?

One day oh Lord I will beg for your forgiveness.

One day oh Lord I will cry because I am scared.

One day oh Lord will you save me like

the gentleman who is reading this right now is wondering.

My brother, don’t wonder anymore

For the Lord is with you

My heart and soul is with you

Take care on your mission

Amen 

-Author Unknown (April 17, 2007)

..and another which gives a little insight into what a soldier thinks about going into battle: 

"Dear Lord, please don’t let me screw-up, but if I do please don’t let me live."

(not the first time I have heard this one)

April07

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Last flight in Iraq…

 My name came up on the duty roster for a routine transport mission to Baghdad for July 9, 2007 and I was listed as the Air Mission Commander (AMC).  The AMC is not necessarily the most experienced pilot, but usually the highest rank.  The AMC directs the flight and is overall responsible for all the aircraft in the formation.

Because I was leaving Iraq (going to Kuwait) sooner than most in order to coordinate the movement of the rest of the Unit back to US, I realized this was going to be my last flight in Iraq.  Sometimes when the aircraft crews are assigned, usually a week prior, no mission is sent down from higher on the day of the flight and the crews do not fly.  Part of me was hoping this was the case.  It wasn’t. 

The mission was a departure late in the day to Baghdad.  Not a big deal except this put us over the middle of the city during rush hour.  People who make it a routine to shoot at aircraft also have jobs and would also be on the street during rush hour.  Great, how many days left to get killed in Iraq?

As we conducted the preflight inspections of the aircraft a number of the crew knew this was scheduled to be my last flight in Iraq; but no one said anything about it.  I also made no remark like “This is my last flight in Iraq”…saying this only seems to call fate to punch your ticket.      

The day was also hot, even hot by Iraq standards.  I am guessing it was over 125F in the aircraft parking area.  When it gets this hot, even when you have water you can’t keep it going into you fast enough.  You have to wear gloves to preflight the aircraft, the metal of the aircraft is to hot to touch with your bare hands.  After putting on a long sleeve flight suit, body armor, flight vest, gloves and a helmet then strapping into the tight fitting cockpit, you literally bake like a Thanksgiving turkey in an oven.  The only thing you want to do take off and get some air moving over you, even hot air is better than nothing.  

As we took off from the base the weather was bad, not bad enough to keep us down, but bad.  The dust that day was reasonably thick.  We could see only about 2 miles in any direction.  This sounds like a lot except you travel that far in less than a minute, a low flying jet travels that far in seconds.  Power lines, which are everywhere, are nearly invisible.  About two weeks prior, a helicopter from a sister unit hit power lines and it was only a lucky twist of fate the crew was not killed.  Luck is a good thing, until you realize it is the only thing between you and death.     

On the good side we would be hard to see from any distance on the ground; making it that much more difficult for someone to shoot at us from the ground. 

As the flight flew into Baghdad I was able to reflect on the changes I have seen in the city over the past year.  If you were to judge how the city is today vs. a year ago based on what the press reports, you would think it was worse.  I don’t agree.

When I first flew over Baghdad almost a year ago there were major portions of the city which were designated “no fly zones”.  The threat over these areas was considered too great to even get near in a low flying aircraft.  Areas like “Sadar City” were definitely areas we avoided.  This assessment was based not only the threat of being shot down, but also due to the concern with what would happen to a crew if they made an emergency landing in one of these areas.  The movie “Blackhawk Down” comes to mind.  Now there is no area of the city which we can’t fly over.  People still shoot at aircraft on occasion, but it is sporadic and not planned attacks and due to the heavy American presence almost everywhere, making an emergency landing while bad, is not necessarily the end of the game. 

Back then, there were large areas of the city which were completely uninhabitable “war zones”, bombed out areas with no civilians risking their lives to go through.  Now there is new construction and traffic – people and cars all over the city and in many of the previously uninhabitable areas.  There are still bad areas, but much fewer.

Back then, American patrols were limited and few; seeing patrols while not uncommon, were few and far between.  Now they seem to be everywhere, both American and Iraqi patrols.  Maybe it is a result of the “Surge”, but whatever it is there are signs of security everywhere.  The now heavy traffic is broken up frequently by checkpoints and security roadblocks.  A few months ago I saw my first “dismounted patrol” (soldiers walking as opposed to being in vehicles) with none of their vehicles or armor in the area.

I have no doubt the streets are just a dangerous today for a soldier as it was last year.  Snipers and IED’s being the main threat.  But the city fundamentally looks better and more secure.  It is apparent to me there is more commerce and productive activity - markets, new construction and areas which have been cleaned up, etc.

Hopefully the Units picking up our mission as we rotate out of country will continue to see improvements.  But as always, the enemy has a vote in what happens and they would like nothing better than for Baghdad to be a complete war zone.   

It was only after we landed back at the base the crews laughed and joked about this being my “last flight in Iraq” – and that is just fine with me.

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What day of the week is it?

For many soldiers in Iraq there are no days of the week.  No weekends, no holidays, no 5’O’clock bell, no “beerthirty”.  Every day is a work day.  Depending on your job you may have a “Reset Day”, meaning you can catch up on sleep or do personal chores, etc.  I only had one reset day while in Iraq, for me it meant I only went into the Operations Center four times that day.  Days of the week have no meaning. 

Similar to two school kids asking each other trivia questions, on occasion one soldier will offer up this question: “So, what day of the week is it?”  The first response is usually “OH, wait! Don’t tell me”, “Aw man, I knew this a few days ago” or the more common “……..(long pause), ……(look around a room for a calendar),…..(count on your fingers), …..I think it is…”

I am sure most soldiers will answer much more quickly the date and how long until they go home.  For me it is August 5, 12 days and a wake up until, (I have been told) I will go home.

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Homecoming

On August 17, 2007 I got on an airliner in Kuwait city with the rest of my unit and we all flew back to the US.  It was hard to believe I was actually going home.  Although many did not say it at the time, stories of units turned around at the airport, some even after getting back to the US, then having to do another three months or more in Iraq created an element of doubt as to weather we were actually going to really get to go home.  With the time differences we left at night and the flight seemed to take forever. 

As we flew, the flight crew continued to update us as to where we were, “Over Iraq”, “Clear the airspace of Iraq”, “Over Europe”, “Over the Atlantic Ocean”, “Over US soil”, each time the announcements were met with cheers from us.

 The first place we landed was in Bangor, Maine.  When the pane touched down the cheers were overwhelming, for me it was sinking in that I was really going home.  Because the plane had to refuel, we had about an hour layover and everyone on the plane was unloaded into the airport.  When we walked down the concourse we were met by cheering people lining the walkways.  It was not just a few people; I am guessing 50-100 people were there to welcome us home.  These were not people who just happened to be in the airport either.  The people of the City of Bangor have set up a volunteer welcoming committee and hospitality office in the airport.  What most amazed me was that we did not land in the middle of the day.  We arrived somewhere around 1am or 2am, Bangor time and all these people turned out in the middle of the night for us.  I found out later they do this for all the returning flights from Iraq.  Between all the cheers, handshakes and hugs we all received an amazing welcome.

While we were waiting in the airport I had the opportunity to speak with a number of the people who welcomed us.  One man I spoke with was a Viet Nam veteran and we shared a few heartfelt soldier stories and I thanked him for welcoming us all at the airport.  He told me he was retired and he considered it a personal mission to greet each group of soldiers as they came through Bangor airport.  In passing I asked him why he did this.  He paused for a moment, then with tears in his eyes he said that when he returned from Viet Nam the first thing that happened to him in the airport he returned to was that a war protestor spit in his face.  Since then he has made it his life mission to see that never happens to another soldier.  We both shared an emotional moment and I thanked him for his service also.  

We then loaded back on the airplane and flew the last leg to Colorado Springs.  As we were landing I looked out the window and saw Pikes Peak.  A year earlier I looked at the same mountain and wondered if I would ever see it again.  Now I was home.  The relief for all of us was overwhelming as we landed.  We were again greeted as we got off the plane and we loaded onto busses to go to Ft. Carson.  I found special meaning in the police escort we received for the bus convoy, because it was from my coworkers.

The administrative check-in procedures before seeing our families were thankfully brief.  We all marched in formation into a gym and were reunited with our families with cheers waiving flags and welcome home signs.  I saw my wife and oldest daughter for the first time in more than 6 months.  It was emotional.

My youngest daughter, who was 6 months old when I left, was now a walking talking two-year old.  She was very shy and not sure what to make of me, now a new presence in her life.  Thankfully I was told before I saw my family to not be surprised if very young children have unusual reactions to you when you get home.  Not being prepared for my daughter reacting the way she did would have been hard on me.  Thankfully, relatively quickly, she reattached to Dad as if I never left.

My readjusting to normal life was probably easier than some others.  My sleep patterns were way off, I felt more at ease sitting in my basement with cement walls around me and “hot” August Colorado weather did not seem to bother me much.  Once a few days after returning, I had borrowed a friend’s car to do some errands.  As I was driving I noticed I was beginning to feel a little “warm”.  It then noticed the windows were up, the air conditioner was off and the outside temperature was about 95 degrees.  I laughed as I realized it was probably 110 degrees in the car and it was only “warm” to me.

It is good to be home and in good health.

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