Sunday, September 6, 2009

Times Are Changing (2)

In continuation of the previous post (click here to read the first), I am making an attempt to better explain life in Iraq – more than the combat situations and the jobs themselves.  That said, let's jump right in.


Due to a gradual (but pronounced) decrease in violence and increase in safety, the doors have been opened for a number of activities at one time forbidden.  In the past, formations were either strictly forbidden, or strongly discouraged (determined at the discretion of the base commander).  Crowds attract incoming indirect fire (rockets and mortars), and unfortunately crowds have also been hit – causing terrible casualties.  On a number of bases (particularly the smaller ones, and those in the Sunni Triangle), troops were required to wear the flaks and helmets if they ventured more than a few feet from quarters.  As annoying as it may have been, it was also reasonable.


Last night I observed this country's first Mixed Martial Arts fight (ringside), attended by perhaps a thousand troops.  The crowd drew no threats, and there were no safety incidents, save for two Iraqis getting caught groping both of the ring girls.  As ambassadors for their country, they did very poorly.  They were fired from their jobs and evicted.


If you have loved ones stationed on a large base (and there are plenty), it is a fact that the perimeters are so far from "mainside" that no indirect fire would be capable of reaching the populated areas.  In other words, they are quite safe.  The greatest threat is pedestrians being struck by vehicles (hence the reflective belts after dark, and maniacal traffic control measures – to include a profusion of bone-jarring speed bumps).


There is one base to the west that, at least in 2006, still had its outermost perimeter ringed with guard towers – occupied by plastic, man-sized (and shaped) targets.  They were green.


Base and perimeter safety have been greatly improved due to a number of factors, to include counterbatteries (tracking devices that quickly pick up incoming fire and trace a trajectory – which is then fired upon with artillery), camera towers (complete with extremely far-reaching optics), and tethered blimps, which also have high-powered optics.  There are other capabilities, I believe, but they are classified.  At any rate, successful attacks on bases are extremely infrequent.  On a side note, at least one command in the past has installed a plywood structure on a roof that resembled a counterbattery device – in the hopes of boosting troop morale.


There are still other bases across Iraq (mostly small) where Soldiers carry their weapons at the ready.  On one such base in May, an Iraqi soldier attacked the US troops, killing two and severely wounding two others.  Since then, security has been extremely tight.  They very painfully remember what happened – and won't allow it to happen again.


But as the ops tempo further decreases, there is a growing interest (and availability) for non-military events to pass the time and keep troops entertained.  In Kuwait, I observed a 4th of July cookout with associated sporting events.  The steaks were grilled by a Bangladeshi man and the event seemed poorly attended.


At a base in Iraq, I took photos for a "70s Night," complete with outrageous costumes, embarrassing dancing, and well over a hundred male Soldiers awkwardly observing the small handful of female Soldiers that elected to dress the part.  The battalion sergeant major wowed everybody with a full pimp outfit, to include pimp hat and pimp cane.  His cane broke while he was dancing.


I have also seen a well-attended Latino event in the reserved seating section of a dining facility here.  At midnight, it was still going strong, and a number of the clocks on the outside wall (indicating local time somewhere else in the world) appeared to be rattling off due to the bass from the music.  I left before they could fall.


Personal amenities for troops are also greatly increasing.  Most of the personnel on a base who will be there for any length of time have laptops, gaming devices, and sometimes televisions.  This isn't a particularly new development.  We had these in 2004.  Most televisions are sold to the unit that replaces them, and most gaming consoles are mailed home.  Laptops travel with the troops.


For those with any free time at all, a common practice is to visit one of the local vendors on base and purchase pirated movies and software.  A number of the movies have been "re-recorded" with video cameras from the back of a theater.  Quality is low, and the movie is frequently interrupted by moviegoers standing up, moving about, and coughing.  Acoustics are awful.  Older movies, however, have a much higher success, since they are simply copied from preexisting releases.


A servicemember who is picky about his or her movie quality will shop at the PX and purchase a legal version of a film.  If quality is not a high priority, they will be purchased from the "haji shop" for a quarter of the cost.  Games are mostly found at the PX, too, along with stateside electronics, unneeded gear items, and embarrassing clothing I would never wear ("OIF 9-11: Feeling the HEAT in Al Asad!")  No thanks.


If I had to guess, the most commonly-selling items in a PX are as follows: tobacco, games, and energy drinks.  For the "haji shops," it would be cheap DVDs, third world electronics, tobacco (non-US brands), and hookah pipes.


I know of at least one base here that has a large, fully equipped swimming pool.  I have also seen some of the suits that are authorized to be worn there, which may in part explain the liberal distribution of condoms by medical staff.  I know of another base whose pool was shut down due to water shortages.


Most bases larger than a combat outpost have at least one 24 hour coffee shop because, as one Soldier put it, "apparently we can't go a year without buying a five dollar gourmet coffee."  From experience, the quality of these drinks leave much to be desired.  They also do not offer whipped cream with their gourmet coffees.


As early as 1999, cell phones were starting to appear in Iraq.  By 2007, AsiaCell was awarded a 15-year license within the country, offering the best coverage of any provider.  While many commands forbid their acquisition for reasons of operational security (OPSEC), many others have no such restrictions.  They are relatively common among the officer ranks, relatively uncommon among the troops, and almost a mainstay among those stationed in Kuwait (also on the AsiaCell network).  The phones are a good three years behind those found in the states and all plans are strictly pre-paid.  To call to the US costs 24 cents a minute.  Outgoing texts cost 12.  Calls in-country are about 8 cents per minute.  Incidentally, most US bases have such a gaggle of competing electromagnetic radiation from various radios and other equipment that the phones are extremely unreliable.  Dropped calls are exceedingly common.  I usually give up and send a text after the third interruption.


Humorously, every phone is disabled when in the presence of an MRAP or other tactical vehicle that uses advanced (and mostly classified) jamming technology.  Cell phones have been one of the primary means by which to detonate IEDs (remotely).


MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation) facilities are elaborate on most bases.  In addition to gyms, most large bases will have movie areas, gaming areas (Xboxes, etc), and sometimes pool tables.  I recently walked into an MWR building and observed two men standing on a life-sized chessboard and contemplating their next moves.


Computer centers are also a fixture of these facilities, with as few as six computers and as many as 40 (roughly).  These days, they're all flat screen monitors, slow desktop systems, and error prone.  Mice don't seem to work consistently.  More than once I've brought in my own to use.  Keyboards are also beginning to show the effects from years of abuse and furiously typed e-mails.  In order for them to work now, I, too, most furiously beat on them.  Time limit: 30 minutes.  Phones may also be found, but I rarely use them, and thus cannot tell you how much they cost.  Maybe as little as 3 cents a minute to the states.


For the record, US troops rabidly oppose the regulation of tobacco use in the military.  I spoke with one company commander who was pretty sure it would irritate every one of his Soldiers.  He told me this over cigars one evening (accompanied by the battalion chaplain – see the photo further down this page).  Though I cannot list the source, I have heard that tobacco use among infantry Marines may be as high as 90%.  Many will quit when they return to the states, and many more will find themselves unable to do so.


In 2004, I remember lining an MRE box with a trashbag, dumping in a number of waterbottles, and doing my laundry.  Later on in that deployment, there were two washers for an entire company.  Then one broke.  But now, on any base larger than an outpost, contracted laundry facilities will promptly, thoroughly wash your clothes free of charge.  The turnaround can be as long as two days but is typically only one.  All my shirts come back buttoned and folded.  Even socks are folded.  While the Soldiers pay nothing, the DoD pays between 60 and 100 dollars, depending on who you ask.


At present, I am housed in an 8ft by 25ft CHU.  They, like most other CHUs, are insulated cargo freight containers.  Mine has two windows, an extremely efficient air conditioner, and typically houses two.  Since I am a journalist and supposedly am worthy of VIP treatment, I have no other occupants.  Humorously, I once stayed in a 40ft CHU by myself.  I also froze in the middle of the night when the AC dropped the temperatures into the 50s.


CHUs, incidentally, are furnished with a varying number of beds and metal lockers, and often accompanied by a hodgepodge of sad, hand-made desks, end tables, and other marginally-functional plywood abominations.  When I was in the 40ft CHU, I was graced with a plastic deck table.  Being provided no chair, I used the plywood end table instead.  At any rate, the only personnel still staying in tents are third-country nationals who work on a base, Marines (sometimes), and transient military personnel who roll in at odd hours and quickly leave again.


The male shower trailer (about 20 feet from my door) has a diffused glass door, which can still be seen through (though you'd have to use your imagination a bit to make up for a fuzzy image).  The latrine trailer, by the way, has a solid door.  50 yards away, the female shower used to have a diffused glass door until two days ago.  Now just their latrine trailer has one.   I cannot explain this phenomenon.


The only newspaper readily available out here is the Stars & Stripes, which, while DOD funded, has a remarkably negative opinion of the military and the war.  The NIPR network (lower security military computer network) blocks all porn sites (obviously), and most news sites (to include Fox News, and CNN, but excludes the Drudge Report).  My own blog is also blocked, as are all social networks like Facebook and Myspace.  Chat?  Nope; you can't.


One CAN access all news sites on the MWR computers, but people are typically more interested in writing e-mails.  But there are now other options.  Large bases these days have begun constructing a very elaborate array of wireless internet hubs which service most living quarters.  For the low, low price of 65-80 dollars a month, you can have internet in your room.


This service is augmented by some battalions pooling their funds and buying a network of their own – which they distribute to their Soldiers at virtually no cost (perhaps 60 dollars a month).  Resourceful troops have also pooled their funds and done the same thing.  I was a member of "Lee's Net" on Brassfield-Mora, who single-handedly provided service to about half his company of Soldiers.  Though I cannot confirm it, I have a hunch that the US Air Force provides internet free of charge for its people, to help them endure their painful, four-month deployments.


With combat stress receiving greater media attention, coupled with a few tragic incidents of late, there is a concerted effort to find help for these Soldiers.  One long section of T-walls has signs which read as follows: "Moody?  Depressed?"  "Feeling like you just can't handle it all?"  "R&R Blues got you down?"  Curiously, I saw no solution offered, no number to call, no point of contact, etc.


While certainly jumbled and incomplete, hopefully this has helped explain what base life is like in Iraq, to the extent that generalizations are possible.  If there are further questions, please e-mail me (, and when I have amassed a good collection of questions, I will go about answering them.  Next up is life OUTSIDE of bases.  That is another story entirely.  I will close with this:


On one base I visited recently, there is a photo of a Ugandan security guard in the MWR internet center.  "Don't Be This Guy.  He Was Caught Looking At Porn On These Computers."  How embarrassing.


Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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1 comment:

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