Saturday, September 12, 2009

Roger (By Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

It is the habit of people when they lose a friend to pontificate about how well they knew him or her and how dearly they will be missed. Such talk, however, is often hollow, spoken by distant acquaintances or those that attempt to borrow grief out of some great desire for self-flagellation. Those that know them closest are silent in their grief. They have nothing to say.

As for Sgt Roger L. Adams, I will make no such claim of knowing him closely, for I did not. I knew him only briefly, but what I remember of him was good. He had character.

During our tour in Iskhandariyah, Adams was sent as a replacement for another Marine who not long before was killed in action. He volunteered for the position.

He was friendly, to say the least, and not the sort of leader who needed to resort to screaming and threats to relay orders. If he asked you to do something, you simply did it. Chances are he’d be helping you, anyway. I don’t ever recall seeing him angry. He laughed a lot.

After thirteen years as a Marine Infantryman, Adams moved over to the Army National Guard, and was serving with the 120th Combined Arms Brigade in and around Baghdad. Like all others who choose to make a career of the military, he was doing what loved most.

He rode in our second humvee, which I believe sustained more hits than any other in our unit. Humorous to all of us, including him, it was never hit again after he arrived. Yet that fortune departed him on June 29th, when he and three other Guardsmen were killed in a catastrophic IED attack in Baghdad. He leaves behind a wife and four sons. He was 36.

I spoke with several of the Guardsmen who were serving with Adams when he died, and they miss him dearly. Though it was painful, they wished to tell me more about him and why they liked him. They told me about the memorial service held for him and the three others, and how they found it powerful, tearful, and meaningful. There in Iraq, more than a week later, several still carried the memorial service bulletin in their pockets. One gave me his copy.

A few Guardsmen volunteered with Adams at the local fire department, where he was known for his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm. Another used to spend his free time with Adams, his wife, and four sons. One offered to give me photographs from the service. Several members of that Guard unit are headed home on R&R, and rather than spend time with their own families, they’re planning to attend Adams’ funeral in North Carolina. Adams was family to them, and they loved him.

That I was no longer serving with him is irrelevant; I still take his death personally. And so should this nation, for they have lost a son. He joins the ranks of several over comrades and leaders who I knew but briefly before Providence saw fit to take them home.

For those who believe the war is over here, think again. Continued attacks on US troops prove otherwise, resoundingly. There is still an enemy here, and that enemy demands the attention and ferocity of the United States Armed Forces.

We will release a sigh and solemnly utter, “rest in peace, Roger,” but he shall have none. At least not until there is no enemy, but peace. There is still a war to fight and his brothers will fight it for him, and for his memory, and for the young family that he leaves behind. Victory is his memorial.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 11, 2009

8 Years Later

Eight years ago today, America was awakened to a threat which had been developing for quite some time. 2,974 people (mostly US citizens, but still representing 90 different countries) died in four separate aircraft hijacking attacks – one into the US Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, two into the Twin Towers on Manhattan Island New York, and one more hijacked over the mid Atlantic states before ultimately crashing into a field in rural Pennsylvania. We were all Americans for a few days and weeks. Soon after, we concentrated on finding somebody to blame. Yet rather than targeting an enemy for attacking us, we often preferred to blame our own for negligence.

But these were far more than unprovoked tragedies. The western world was awakened to the fact that there is an underclass of humanity who, for no other reason than that we breathe free, hates us and will devote every last man to killing all those not like them. They do not negotiate, and will only stop when they have exterminated anybody who dares adhere to a different philosophy.

Eight years later, the United States has more than 170,000 forward-deployed troops serving in a two-front campaign commonly known as the War on Terror. Most people have nothing positive to say about their presence. How quickly we forget our own loss of life.

For the better part of a decade, extremists have been flocking to the Middle East to kill Americans. Some have been successful. However, they have largely ignored US consulates, embassies, and our homeland. US forces have kept them preoccupied. The fight, so to speak, was taken to them and distanced from our own backyards. The United States has sustained no serious terrorist attack since September 11th, 2001. This is a magnificent triumph.

Nowhere in the states are there long lines of cars waiting to pass through vehicle checkpoints every few miles. Nor are concrete barriers compartmentalizing entire cities to limit vehicular traffic and reduce the kill radii of VBIEDs and other explosives placed in crowded areas. For the most part, Americans are free to travel throughout their own country without fear of bombs and executions by rogue police or army personnel. Christians aren’t fearful of attacks at churches on Sundays, and nor are Muslims concerned for their safety as they worship on Fridays. Additionally, enhanced stateside security measures have ensured no air hijackings, rendering airlines the safest means of travel once again. As a whole, Americans are free from the bonds of fear. We win.

We win because, while both fronts of the war continue, Americans are still safe, and still welcome to exercise their Constitutional rights to speak, think, and worship freely. They will not receive “guests” in the middle of the night that order them to leave their homes or face immediate death. No Americans have observed as these visitors carve up a child, cooked his flesh, and fed it back to them. Few Americans have suffered the disappearance of a family member, only to find them in a ditch a few days later, dead by execution. NO American has gone to a store or market and experienced a suicide bomber detonating him or herself in their midst. By and large, Americans are still safe, and woefully unaware of how nice it is.

Their safety has been purchased by the efforts and sacrifices of the United States military, which serves as the final line of defense between a free nation and a world which is increasingly dedicated to forcing their way of life on others. They have paid heavily to maintain our freedoms, and no doubt the death toll will continue to rise.

Is it worth it? Yes. And now is not the time to diminish our footprint. Those that hate the United States continue to pose a legitimate threat to our way of life. They are not a class of human with whom to negotiate, for all kindness is misunderstood as weakness. We are best served to continue acting as the merciful warriors we have trained our military to be. We offer clemency to those who wish it, and we kill those who do not. They will not stop until they are dead, so we must hasten that.

There is worldwide concern these days with being internationally liked and understood, but I would argue that it is of greater import to be right, with only moderate regard to how others feel about it. For, we do not simply support the Constitution for ourselves, but as basic human rights applicable to all humanity. Our efforts are not to simply protect our own, but provide freedom for others worldwide. The nature of our ideals requires they be shared.

Clearly, preservation of these ideals comes at high cost, and there are more than 5,000 families in the United States who have lost a loved one in either Iraq or Afghanistan. And more will fall, too. Few servicemembers over here are unfamiliar with the loss of a comrade. It doesn’t get easier, either.

But it must continue, because the threat also continues. Our eyes are now opened to the clear and present danger to our way of life. They can never be shut again, or not at least until there is no enemy. There are humans worldwide that wish to kill us. We must kill them first, for ignoring them simply emboldens them. There is no room for political correctness, because this is not politics; this is war. It is heartwrenching that it took nearly 3,000 innocent lives to awaken us to this threat. It is tragic that the human investment in our national defense has now far exceeded this number. But, it is absolutely self destructive that we are quick to quit the race. Where went our national spirit? Long passed like the memory of two towers crushing thousands, a jet liner plunging into our Pentagon, a famous phone call from Flight 93? We must choose to fight, lest history repeat itself.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 10, 2009

When Words Fall Short

Yesterday morning I received a short e-mail which, despite being but a handful of words, broke my heart: "3 KIA,6 others hurt.  I need some words of wisdom."  Yet I had none.  Three killed?  Six wounded?  What am I to say?  I'm not even in the military anymore.  Any words I utter, however poetic or powerful, ultimately change nothing.  There are still three men gone, and I cannot bring them back.


I am reminded of how I reacted when my unit sustained one killed and another wounded.  I remember hearing the news from the platoon commander and walking off to sulk for a bit.  I remember not wanting to be inactive, and instead investing all my energy in going down to Motor T and working with the mechanics to repair the damaged vehicle and replace the one destroyed.  I remember cannibalizing a windshield off another commander's humvee, and swapping out our shattered one.  I remember a friend bringing me a belt of ammunition still covered in blood and saying, "we're all going to load these in our magazines.  You want some?"  Two hours after the incident, we were ready to run another mission – should one have been assigned to us.  The point is we didn't deal with it.  We simply couldn't right then.  Five years and thirteen days later, I'm not sure I have still.


A few guys cried, mostly the ones who knew the victim more closely than I, but most of us just remained silent.  There weren't words to describe how we felt.  We'd only been in-country for about six weeks, so we didn't have the luxury of slowing down to think about it.  In truth, it had only just begun.  Welcome to war.  Awful things happen.


There are times when words fail completely.  There are times when no single sentence or remark, however heartfelt, will change a situation and reverse or lessen the tragedy that just took place.  As a Marine on deployment, I stomached it and did my job.  We all did.  And now on the outside looking in, I want to help, but feel impotent to do so.


When anybody suffers a loss or tragedy in the states (at least from my observations), there is a custom of calling or sending them cards to express how sorry we are for their loss.  Well-intentioned though it may be it falls far short of what is needed.  Others will deliver an array of casseroles and buckets of fried chicken, but it's probably more to ease their own feeling of helplessness than render any comfort.  None of us knows what to do.  But when words fail and actions are insufficient, one great thing remains: presence.


Presence.   I may be unable to say anything of substance, but I can bring my full presence to this person.  I can sit with them in silence, for at least they will not be sitting alone.  They are entering a furnace.  They won't like it there, and nor will I, but if I want to help, this is the only way.  They are saved from going alone.  Words carry little weight here, but WE carry much more.


I cannot claim to understand what it is like to suffer 3 KIA and 6 others hurt.  I've had similar experiences, but every single situation is different.  Similarly, everybody processes it differently.  I am simply able to empathize with the sensation of devastation and loss.  While I cannot put it into meaningful words, I can join them where they are.  "I will go there with you," said a friend to me, and I have learned much from it.


It is pointless to recite the mantras to the effect of "you still have a mission to accomplish," or "take care of each other so it doesn't happen again."  They already know these things.  Their grief is at the loss of three loved ones, and the broken families they now leave behind.  I can join them, and say nothing.  I can show up.


Most troops will not process tragedy in full until they are far removed from those situations, so it stands to reason that their friends and families will see the grief first hand when their loved one returns.  How can you help?  Say nothing, but give them your full presence.  This, perhaps above all else, is why attempting to overload a returning servicemember with questions and attention is so poorly received.  They know you won't understand, so they don't bother trying to explain it.  Nor do they seriously take comfort in your assurance that you know what they're going through.  You do not.  But they do respect your presence.


More than simply spending time with those in grief, you are wordlessly expressing love.  You are fully there, and entirely because you wish to be.  You offer no words of comfort or casseroles or flowers; you offer yourself.  And this is the greatest gift you can bring.


For my friend who lost three companions, I have no words of wisdom.  Nothing I can say will bring back the three fallen men or restore their devastated families.  But, should our paths cross out here, I will offer myself.  I will say nothing, for there is nothing to say.  Better that than grieve alone.  I will attend because that is the best I can do.  And may every one of the three go swiftly to God.


Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Same Story, Different War (3)

*Third in the ongoing series of letters between PFC Arthur _____ and his parents back home (WWII). Click here to read the first. Here to read the second.

Burtzback, Germany
April 18, 1946

Dear Mom and Dad,

Well, yesterday, I received a letter from home dated April 7, which isn’t or rather wasn’t too long in getting here, as it usually takes two weeks or longer and, as usual, was glad to hear from you and I was also very pleased to hear that Jack was able to phone you. He told me that he’d probably be very busy but “at least,” he said, he’d try. I hope that you received my other letter, informing you of the probability, before he called.

Yesterday, also, I moved out of my semi-private rook to the barracks, here in camp. I was living in one of the houses that the Army had taken over as living quarters for the soldiers who were staying here but now only officers are allowed to sleep in those buildings; so, I, along with the rest of the EM, had to move out. But these barracks are OK, so I don’t mind too much.

I’m enclosing some stamps that I want you to keep or else change into money. The only reasons I’m sending home stamps is that I haven’t been paid in German currency yet, and so, I can’t send home any money until I do; so, I’m buying stamps and sending those home instead. They’re supposed to be almost as good as money; so do whatever you want to do and if you want to wait…OK.

I have received those three letters that you though I wouldn’t get because of the wrong address, Dad, but there’s nothing doing just yet; so, give me a little more time and I’ll find out exactly what the story is. But in the meantime, don’t be too optimistic because it’s not as easy as one would think it is.

Well, I guess that that’s all there is to write about for now; so bye until the next time.

All my love,


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It Needs Saying

In Afghanistan, on August 14th, Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard (21) was mortally wounded by a Taliban RPG while conducting a foot patrol in the Helmand Province. His last few minutes, as he struggled to stay alive and fellow Marines labored to stabilize him, were photographed and filmed by an Associated Press photographer. Against the emotional pleas of his parents and the personal requests of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the AP ran the photos anyway. People have been positioning themselves on both sides of the battle lines ever since. As a photographer, an embedded journalist, and a veteran, I strongly oppose the AP’s decision.

As Colonel Jack Jacobs wrote in his article, “The Associated Press Loses Its Way,” the public is well aware of war’s cost in human lives, thus dismantling the AP argument that “it conveys the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it.” Just ask the more than 4,500 families that have lost loved ones in the War on Terror, or the more than 750,000 families that have sacrificed a loved one to US conflict in the 20th century alone. A picture doesn’t make it any more real for them; it plunges the knife deeper in to unhealed wounds. What would the loved ones of the Virginia Tech massacre said had forensic footage been published? I doubt anything positive.

If a photograph is essential to providing accurate details of a conflict, then are we to assume that all wars prior to photography were poorly understood by the public? I daresay not, since in all wars fewer came home than left – and families were permanently deprived a loved one. They knew first hand, as did all their friends, the “grimness of war.”

If photos and film accurately portrayed violence and gore, they wouldn’t be a staple of movies and graphic novels. Quite simply, they would be too traumatizing. Ask anybody who’s endured a serious car accident. Ask if they think photos compare at all to the real thing. Gore on television and in print is accepted because it does nothing to put the viewer in the actual scene. It satisfies a grotesque curiosity – and makes millions of dollars. I would propose that the AP, like any other company in the entertainment industry, was trying to drum up publicity and a profit. I am extremely disappointed they were successful.

War is not profit; it is hell. A photograph fails to convey the loss of a friend, or the reek of blood mixing with soil in a country that the US will never own, but simply hand back to its rightful owners. It shows no pain. It doesn’t portray the ebbing of life. It doesn’t accurately show grief.

As a veteran, I can’t imagine allowing a reporter to hover around a fallen comrade and take photos. It isn’t a hot story; it’s a man dying. I would have snatched the camera from his/her hands and thrown it towards the enemy. “Go get it now, you bastard. Or get his blood on your hands. What you’re doing deserves it. Profiteering off a death…” I would be disgusted that they are there at all. There’s a special room in hell reserved for these people. Would they take photos in an emergency room too?

As an embedded reporter, I find such a response to be extremely disrespectful, to say the least, and a very poor use of my time. If they’re losing people, they need help. Perhaps I could hold a bandage, or carry ammo, or just lay low and stay out of the way. As a writer, I find their medium odious. They have successfully captured images that will now burn in the minds of Joshua Bernard’s family indefinitely – photographs that the whole world saw, thought “how awful,” and went back to playing on their computers or reading the stock market report.

Very bluntly, the observer wasn’t there. It’s a photo of somebody they’ll never meet, in a country they’ll probably never visit, and they will never experience the fear, the chaos, and the heart wrenching pain of watching a brother lose his life before their eyes. To them, it’s marginally inappropriate horror – the stuff of films; not real life.

Here’s what I would have done: set aside the camera. I cannot photograph a dying brother. But, I would write story down in graphic detail. I would describe the routine patrol. I will describe the personalities of the troops, their demeanor as they stepped off on their patrol. I would describe the weather, the smell, the buildings and the lay of the land. I would write about how the Marines interacted and how they chatted with the Afghan soldiers as they readied their gear for the mission. I would write about the camaraderie. I would also write about Joshua Bernard. In the end, the story is about him.

As the piece progresses, I would write about what happens, and describe the absolute revulsion I experience as a fellow American and veteran falls to enemy fire. I would write about my amazement as his comrades do everything in their power to save his life while remaining calm, returning fire, and functioning in a state of total chaos and tragedy. I would reach for a rifle, media restrictions be damned. I would help.

If the public really wants to know what a war is like, they should fight in one. But even that is not an ideal solution. Every last man and woman in the military as volunteered for service so the public need NOT experience war. They serve so that others are sheltered from it – because war is horrible, and men will die. They know this more than any other. Nearly every combat Soldier or Marine out here has lost a friend along the way.

Should the Associated Press write about war? Yes. Should they write about what happens in Afghanistan? Yes. Should they tell Joshua Bernard’s story? Absolutely. And they should do so with passion, with emotion, and heart – if their reporters HAVE hearts. Lance Corporal Bernard was not a journalistic fact, a statistic, or an attention-gaining photograph to send around the world. He was a son, a man barely out of his teens, and a servant to his country. No photograph will accurately show that. Words won’t either, but they’ll come closer. His life is a story worth telling. His death should remain a tragedy etched into the hearts of his loved ones and comrades, not fodder for a newspaper.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 7, 2009

Where Credit Is Due

"Doc Conques," Lt. Wollenman asks, "you want to do a quick prayer?"


"Sure thing, sir."  Heads bow in the small group and helmets come off.


"In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, amen.  God, it's hot out here.  The women aren't.  Texas.  Amen." 


Amid snickers, a few soldiers complete lengthier prayers of their own, throw on gear, and climb into their humvees.  Ten minutes later, the soldiers of Bravo battery, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Artillery (Ft Hood, TX) are in the city of Kirkuk, the fifth largest in Iraq.


"I really think artillery is underrated out here," contends Spc. Houston.  "When people think of the Army, they immediately think infantry.  But there are other combat arms out here, too, and we all pretty much have overlapping missions these days."


While the earliest years of the US presence in Iraq were devoted predominantly to combat operations and the elimination of a persistent insurgency, mission tasking has since transitioned to the more intricate challenges of counterinsurgency operations (COINOPS), which strive to equip Iraqi security forces with the training, organization, and standardization necessary to secure their own battlespace.  Few regions have been as successful as the city of Kirkuk.


Platoon commander Lt. Wollenman uses an analogy to education to explain the current situation:  "Whereas in other provinces we're still teaching the IP [Iraqi Police] high-school level material, here we're on a graduate or PhD level.  This police force is decades ahead of those to the south.  They're extremely professional." 


Perhaps more than any city in northern Iraq, the IP have their area of operations under tight control.  "The locals even call in IEDs now, which is great," Wollenman boasts.


"We hardly ever see IEDs up here," acting platoon sergeant SSgt. Mitchell explains, "and that's just fine with me.  I was hit on five separate occasions last time.  But here, between all the overlapping IP stations, checkpoints and patrols, the insurgency has been denied the opportunity to lay any IEDs.  They just don't have enough time."  The bulk of insurgent activity in Kirkuk, he asserts, is from "transient terrorists."


The soldiers' greatest threat remains the RKG, a stick grenade-style of shape charge which is thrown into the air and typically detonates overhead into the crew compartments of humvees and other military vehicles.  The results are often disastrous.  MRAPS, the newest armored vehicles in the US military fleet, are such inviting targets to insurgents throwing RKGs that Bravo battery prefers using humvees outside the wire.  Despite the increased risk, it remains a necessary one.  Additionally, many streets are too narrow and power lines too low to accommodate the lumbering MRAPS.


And nor is Kirkuk without other dangers, either.  Less than three months ago, Bravo suffered the devastation of losing a soldier to a sniper fire.  Nearly every member of the platoon sports an engraved metal bracelet in honor of Staff Sergeant Leroy Webster.  A few are eager to tell his story, but a few others are still unable to talk about it.  Webster wasn't simply a good leader or coworker, but a family friend; his children played with their children, and they shared holidays and weekends.  Unlike other less cohesive units, Bravo has truly lost one of their own.  The overarching mission, however, still continues.


"If I had to summarize our job," explains Mitchell "it's this: to enable and advise the Iraqi police to handle their own affairs.  We only enter the city when we're invited.  When we do go in, it's with the IPs escorting us.  It's their show now; we're just here if they want our involvement."


And the Iraqi police seek that assistance, enthusiastically so.  The platoon routinely visits numerous district IP headquarters to collaborate, assist with IP training, and provide material assistance.  The philosophy is centered around "how can we help you," as opposed to "this is what you're going to do."  As it stands, the IPs demonstrate that they know what to do.  "We just enable them to do it better," says Wollenman.


When US forces prepared to withdraw from Iraqi cities on June 30th, Wollenman recalls how upset one district police chief became.  Col. Anwar expressed concerned he'd no longer receive Wollenman and his soldiers as regular visitors – something he enjoys not only for tactical collaboration, but also because he considers them friends.  As a whole, the Iraqi Police view the soldiers are their guests, there not to direct their movements, but to help improve their success.


The unit arrives at the Domeis district IP station to an enthusiastic welcome, handshakes and hugs, and soldiers shed layers of body armor to relax with Anwar in his office.  Elsewhere in the compound, the operations tempo is high.  As soldiers observe, three women and three men are brought in for questioning.  The women were caught engaging in prostitution and the three men were caught paying for their services.  All six will be tried and likely serve time in prison.


An Iraqi woman interrupts Col. Anwar's meeting to explain how her nephew beat her and her son with a stick.  After hearing her situation, Anwar meets with the nephew.  He receives a sharp rebuke, and is sent away for processing.  The police have the situation under control.


In fact, the Iraqi army (IA) has no presence whatsoever in the cities.  According to Wollenman, "the IA mission is to secure, and the IP mission is to develop."  Since Kirkuk is already secured, an IA presence is unnecessary.  "Whenever the IA come into the city," he believes, "we take five steps back."  The police consider it insulting.


In Kirkuk, Iraqi police are divided into two distinct groups (each with numerous periphery units).  The first, Emergency Services Unit (ESU), is concerned primarily with operations, interdiction, and tactical intervention.  The other group serves more in the standard police role: day-to-day public service, investigations, traffic control, and petty crimes.  Though Mitchell likens the rivalry between the two to that of the Army and Marines, the groups typically collaborate fluidly.


Pfc. Castleman speaks highly of ESU's tactical competence.  "We taped a cigarette butt to a target one day, and then an ESU guy hit it perfectly.  When our platoon sergeant tried it with his own rifle, he missed."  Humorously, when they switched weapons, the ESU officer still hit his target, and the platoon sergeant still missed.  "These guys can shoot; I've seen it," Castleman insists.


Another mission into the city was at the invitation of the Aruba district ESU chief, who requested the soldiers' assistance with a local presence patrol.  Aruba, one of the more volatile areas of the city, is suffering a spate of murders – a few targeting civilians and a few targeting Iraqi Security Force (ISF) personnel.  The ESU chief has asked that the soldiers accompany his officers on a patrol through the district as a show of force. 


In addition to conducting a joint patrol, Lt. Wollenman receives a status report on the investigation into the murders.  The most recent murder, carried out in the same manner as one of the others, makes number seven.  The police are increasing their efforts significantly, eager to demonstrate their ability to preserve the peace in their district.  Today may have brought a breakthrough.  Lt Wollenman ducks outside to make a quick phone call and report the progress, and then returns to his meeting with the chief.  Both the Iraqi police and soldiers are excited.  They're hopeful that the latest information may put an end to the violence.


But this small artillery battery does far more than collaborate with local IP districts.  Aside from that mission, they frequently stand by as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) for whatever other US or Iraqi elements are operating in the city.  When their response level is sufficiently high, they pass those hours waiting on their vehicles for a call.  Moreover, they always maintain a "hot gun" (standby artillery piece) on base, registered and ready to respond to whatever terrain denial, lum (illumination), or call for fire missions should be requested.  Sleep is scant for the troops, and an endless stream of meetings, intelligence briefings and administrative responsibilities keep the platoon leadership almost perpetually busy.  Lt. Wollenman's lack of sleep is easily noted by the dark circles under his eyes.


Nevertheless, he's extremely pleased with his soldiers and his chain of command.  "I couldn't ask for better soldiers here.  From the top to the bottom, they're fair and they take care of us.  Most of them have been over here three, four, or even five times.  They all know their job, and they do it well." 


The soldiers are similarly impressed with their leadership.  Many enthusiastically remarked that their battalion commander was "good to go."


The ranks are extremely diverse in Bravo.  Many are only 19 or 20, but still on their second tours.  One specialist is 38, joining at an older age with the express purpose of serving his country.  A few are bilingual immigrants.  One will soon fly to Baghdad for his swearing in as a US citizen.  At least four soldiers are expecting newborns in a matter of days or weeks.  Last night, one wife was at the hospital in labor.  One young soldier spends whatever free time he can find studying a dog eared book on parenting.  For three, this will be their first child. 


Yet Kirkuk's future remains somewhat uncertain still, due largely to its proximity to Kurdish territory, disputed boundaries with Kurdish security forces, years of "Arabization" under Saddam's regime with the ensuing ethnic vacillations, a thus far undetermined method of local and national governance, and a host of other complicated factors.  Furthermore, a four-year drought continues to devastate agriculture, a source of provincial income second only to oil.  But the soldiers are hopeful, and of equal important, so are the Iraqis. 


The city shows obvious signs of development, and new construction and road maintenance crews are a common sight.  New shops are appearing throughout the city, and building supply businesses have opened quickly to accommodate the growth.  They have far to go, but this region, perhaps more than any other in Iraq, exhibits pronounced progress.


Since his arrival in January, Lt. Wollenman has personally observed a steady decline in violence within the city.  He believes that the vast majority of local insurgent activity is purposed to do little more than grab media attention.


Maj. James Rawlinson, Public Affairs Officer for 2nd Brigade Combat Team, echoes this conviction.  Violence, he reports, has been on a steady decline for some time.  "We haven't had a suicide bombing in months."  Insurgent activity, he states, is propaganda-driven, intended to raise doubt in the local population that the Iraqi police are capable of securing their own area of responsibility.  Yet diminishing crime rates are clearly indicating otherwise.


One of the greatest difficulties with counterinsurgency operations is the process of passing ultimate authority and responsibility from US forces to Iraqi security forces.  And though many Iraqi cities remain relatively lawless and impoverished, Kirkuk is vastly improved from what it once was.  US forces helped secure it, and now the Iraqi police are taking the reins with astounding success.  


"They're doing well," Wollenman believes, "and when they need help, we'll help them.  So far, though, they seem to have it under wraps.  We just keep ourselves available."  By the time the unit leaves, he's hopeful they'll be bored.


Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

I Can't Help You

Whenever I’m stateside, I’m still fielding my favorite question: “What’s it like over there?” And, despite being here in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and now 2009 (as a writer), I still can’t answer to my own satisfaction. It’s too broad. It means too much. It’s still emotions that haven’t yet found their way to words. While the listener may be happy with the response, I am not.

Take a collage of 100,000 photographs and ask me to find the ONE that best summarizes them all. I can’t do that. Ask me in the morning when I’ve just risen and I’ll tell you it was absolutely stupid. Ask me when I’m alert, I’ll give a more measured response. Ask me when I’m drunk, I’ll tell you about the friends I lost and what I think about the creation of widows for the sake of a foreign policy I’m not entirely certain I understand or support. Ask me right now and I’m at a loss for words. Most of us are.

But all the same, folks, go ahead and ask. Ask me. Ask your fathers who served in another war. Ask your uncles who were in a “conflict” that never was even considered a war. Ask your grandfathers…if they’re alive, and if they’ll even talk about it. It’s a wave of emotions. But if you want, don’t ask. In fact, don’t say anything. You’ll still get your answer. Watch faces. Watch body language. Watch THEM.

Watch the old guys that essentially live in VFW halls and refer to themselves as professional drunks. Watch how they never actually talk about anything. They keep the conversation firmly focused on trivialities. Watch how much they drink, or how many packs of smokes they burn through in a night. Glance at their tattoos and try to figure out what the original image was before their skin went to leather.

Watch the old men when they’re at the local parade. When the flag goes by, watch them stand up straighter than you were aware they could muster at their age and in their condition.

Watch the hats that dutifully come off at baseball games when the National Anthem plays. See how many old men have tears in their eyes. Take note of how many don’t care if people see them anymore. Why hide how tragedy, pride and memories move them?

Peek into a loved one’s closet and you’ll find old boots, or old uniforms, or beautifully-framed medals hidden in a box on a shelf. They still know it’s all there, and they still look at it, too. It’s probably just not when you’re around.

You’ll also find photographs in there – guys or girls you’ve never met and have never been told about either. If the photograph has been saved, chances are they’re not alive anymore. You are unlikely to hear the story, though. It seems an insult to transform them into stories. It’s too much like entertainment; not a brother or sister who was cut down in the prime of life.

Watch a vet at a car accident scene or a crime scene. See how they’re not really flinching? Well, they’ve seen worse. At least there aren’t body parts of friends everywhere this time. They’ll live.

Watch two men who have never met share a “Semper Fidelis, buy one another beers, and walk out the best of friends. You’ll hear them ask, “who were you with?” You might overhear some interesting stories, too.

Watch young and old men alike walk out of movies like “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Blackhawk Down.” It’s not a movie to them. It’s too real, and people died out there. These men knew their names.

Listen to them summarize an entire tour in a few short words. “It could have been disastrous.” “We got blown up a lot.” “It sucked.” “I hate that damn country. They can go to hell.” “It smelled like dead bodies and shit.” “Ask somebody else.” You’ll be frustrated that there are unexplained “gaps” in their lives. Months, if not years that you know little about and they would rather not explain. For the better part of nine months, I have tried to “put” people here with my writing. I feel I’m no closer to success than I was the day I started this. I fear I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered.

Look around on a city block and see who flies a flag most often. See who reads the news the most. See who stays the calmest in long lines. See who carries a gun. See who talks the least. Observe who knows the Constitution and can still recite the oath he or she took to it. See who’s the most stubborn, persistent bastard you’ve ever met. See who treats their bodies most abusively.

See who can be the angriest. See who takes their own lives more than any other population in the country. See who’s the calmest but can become the most dangerous. See who fights the hardest but who fights the least often. Watch who will also drop everything to help a virtual stranger whose “done his time,” too.

Watch the dysfunction. Watch the peace. Watch the hope, and the total loss of innocence. Wait for the faraway look and come to their faces and wish you were there, too.

So what’s it like? What’s war like? What’s Iraq like? It depends on the day. It sucked. It was boring. It was stupid. It was dangerous. It was the adventure of a lifetime. I hated it. I loved it. I wanted to come back. I wanted to go home. I hoped the country sank into the sand. It was grotesque. It was ballet of rifles, boots, and ferocity. It was fear. It was invincibility. I’m a victim. I’m a victor. It was overrated. It was underplayed. It was something I wish lasted longer. It was something that robbed me of 53 months of my life. It was good. It was evil. I needed to do it. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t kill enough. I killed too many. I made it worse. I made it better. I don’t know.

I can go on and on, but you’re still not going to get it. I’m not sure that I even do, actually. Honestly, I also doubt I ever will. That’s why we’re all in our own little world, because we were birthed of the same mother. It’s complicated. Some of us attempt to explain it; some of us never bothered to try. We can’t even explain it to ourselves.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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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