Published February 17, 2006
"What's the sense of committing when you can rubble it?" — Captain
We thought we got mortared, but it was a controlled detonation. Rudden and I went to the shelter to wait for a siren.
Rudden had a tough day editing. He used five separate tracks of audio on the package that will run Friday. I don't know if anyone will hear it. He wanted to make it perfect, so he spent most of the night on it. He didn't get up from his chair, so I brought him chow, Mexican.
I saw the ice cream man at dinner. I think he is from Sri Lanka. He was working the trays. I asked him about the ice cream schedule, which was baffling. Sometimes he was there with his scooper, sometimes a blue cloth covered the ice cream area. It should have been a black cloth. I asked him if there was any method to the ice cream schedule, any way to predict when he'd be there. He said it was one day daytime, next day dinner. Tomorrow, he said, he'd be at dinner. I asked him a couple of times, because with these things you have to be careful there is not an error in communication.
I sat outside the chew for a while while Rudden edited. There was bright sunlight, but it was cold. It was brown in front of me, and brown as far as you could see. It was mud. I thought about Chechnya. Chechnya was all mud, and much colder. Every war I've been to was full of mud. Mud that sticks to your shoes, mud that gets in your clothes. I sat there and looked out on the giant brown sandbags and the small green sandbags. I started singing, "Twenty twenty four hours ago, I wanna be sedated." I sang softly and tried different intonations.
Feb. 16, 2006 11:15 a.m.
55:53-minute run, strong last quarter through the mud
It would be easy for a reporter to spend one day at the base here, get three sound bites from U.S. soldiers critical of the Iraqi soldiers, get a couple of sound bites from the Iraqi soldiers saying something good about Saddam, and leave. It has been done already, several times.
The first week here, living accommodations, food and water for the new Iraqi soldiers, were chaotic. By week two, there was a regular food and water supply, heat and 24-hour electricity. The accommodations are spartan, but livable. The three Iraqi soldiers we interviewed last night had thin mattresses on a floor right next to each other, taking up most of the room. They ate bread and chicken squatting in the room.
By week three, military training had begun and the Iraqis received body armor and the first armored vehicles.
There are still a lot of questions, though, that only someone who is living here in the mud can see.
First, they quit. Half didn't show after the move from Kirkuk. Another half quit after payday.
But the biggest problem may be the differences between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. More than half of this new Iraqi battalion are Kurds.
When I ask them, “Is this, Beyji, your country?” They say, “No.” When I ask if they trust their fellow soldiers who are Arabs, they say, “No.” When I ask why they became soldiers they say, "For the money." When I ask what will they do when the Americans leave, they say they will go home.
Feb. 15, 2006 12:45 p.m.
58-minute run, strong headwinds
"Swearing is the language of war" — Fein
I asked a captain what they needed here. He said coms. When you come back from a mission, after sometimes getting shot at, he said, you wanted to be able to get on a computer and e-mail your wife. Not wait in line.
One soldier here told me that because of the wars, he has been with his wife four months out of four years of marriage. The rest of the time he has been deployed. It is a story I hear a lot.
Every step you take here, every time you drive down the road, you could be driving over a bomb. When you are eating chow in a nice warm room, you could be mortared. Every second these soldiers are over here, they are putting their lives at risk. And the ones who go out, day and night, on patrol in armored humvees and on foot, are especially at risk.
In a 900-page Miss. Manners tome I learned that it is permissible to eat asparagus with one's hands, but did not learn why, nor was there anything in it on war zone phone etiquette. "Your family must be worried sick about you," which I heard once, was not cheering.
I think people here want to hear about normal life. I get asked the open question all the time, "So what's it like in the States?" How do you answer that? Has the snow melted? Did officials ruin the Super Bowl? What do we have to look forward to? What will we do when I get back?
I was screening video yesterday of soldiers driving down a road here in Beyji. There were beeps on the tape from an anti-IED device. The lieutenant in the passenger seat pointed out the sites:
"IED hole there...there's an IED hole...there was one there. You see those puddles? When they get deep, they try to put IED's in them. Dead dog body, always a bad sign, that could be an IED. Watch out for that truck, could be a VBIED."
You sit and you watch the screen. You see what they see through the window, the obstacle course they go through day and night. You hear the beeps, and you hope what never comes up on the screen is "Game Over."
Feb. 14, 2006 6:42 p.m.
55:22-minute run, new low
"The only way to know if the surf is good is to get in your car and see for yourself." — Cameraman P. Rudden
The U.S. officers are much more politically correct when talking about the new Iraqi Army than the soldiers are. When the Iraqis came up to the helicopter landing strip I heard one soldier near me mention the "Bad News Bears." Another sang the theme song from "Top Gun."
When Hueys land, experienced people turn around and take one knee because the force from the twin blades can knock you over. It did blow my Tumi messenger bag off into the sand. I had to get rid of my previous messenger bag after a suicide bombing. I had left it at my feet while reporting, and the bottom got soaked with blood. The rust-colored stain in the bottom reminded me of it every day back in New York, so I got rid of it, despite the fact that the bag itself was in good shape.
For most of the Iraqis it would be their first time in a helicopter. They had us get on and get off the helicopter quickly, several times, running out and getting into formation in the dirt as if we were under fire.
This was the first time I had my new body armor on. The side plates added considerable weight, as did the new neck protection. I felt like one of those knights, where once knocked off his horse he was done, because he was too heavy to get himself upright. They filed us in behind the Iraqis and we ran off and on the Huey, back and forth, even though the motors were still off. The Iraqis ran with order and enthusiasm.
The mission was to surround a terrorist safe house in the desert. You had to run out of the back of the Huey and run up a sand dune. At one point during the mission you had to go down into a tunnel. I had heard about the tunnel during the briefing the night before, and the risks associated with it. I made a mental note to avoid it. Fortunately, the snipers were posted at the top of the tunnel. I stayed with them. It is always a mistake to move around independently during an operation. For one thing, you are not in uniform, so either side could get you.
There is a risk from the air too. At one point during a fight in Karbala a year ago, Pete and I heard ourselves identified by a chopper overhead. The pilot was asking about us. It was night, and there were ways he had of identifying U.S. soldiers, so it is good to stay in a crowd.
I sat on the stairs, which smelled of excrement, and leaned my head back against one stair with my helmet on, and fell asleep.
Feb. 12, 2006 1:38 p.m.
The word "yama" in colloquial Russian means "deep hole." When I lived in the Matveyevsky section of Moscow, I used to take gypsy cabs home every night, usually little shestyorkas with cracked windshields and smoking drivers. I would sit in silence in the front seat until about 20 yards before the yama that lay across my route, in the center of a looping curve. Then I would say one word, "Yama."
Sometimes the drivers would get it, swerve, and say "spasibo." Sometimes they'd get it only after a deep thud, which felt like it could snap the chassis.
We were out with the Iraqi Army yesterday on a helicopter assault. The target was a train station in the desert, reportedly used by bomb makers as a transit point. The briefing was the night before, around a map table. The officer in charge directed all the "not ready for prime time players" to the right of the room so the guys who needed to see the map could get a clear view. Rudden and I moved to the right.
The last major pre-battle brief I had been to was in Karbala, more than a year ago. There were no intel photo maps around a table then. MRE boxes were used for the buildings, including one mosque, and strips of tape were used for the main roads. At the end, everyone had to walk the route they were supposed to take, kind of like war twister.
This time there were small pieces to represent the different players — snipers, mortar teams, blackhawks. Even FOX had a piece. From my vantage point, I strained to see what tiny object was used to represent Rudden and me, but even with lasik I could not make it out.
A good half of the room was dipping. Some had cups, others had 1.5-liter size water bottles, which left a narrower opening for the spit.
It was late and I was tired. I got real tired here. The briefing went on for a while. At one point the captain turned to us and asked if we had body armor. We said, "yes sir" and nodded. I began pulling out eyebrow hairs.
Feb. 11, 2006 7:59 p.m.
It was a good day. No one got killed.
My son is at Balad with the 101st. He concurs with your comment about computers, even if you have one of your own getting "on-line" is a long wait, but worth it. It is their only connection to home. This is my son's (he is 23 yrs old) 3rd deployment in 3 years (Afghanistan 2002, Iraq, 2003-4, Iraq 2005). He bought a bed after one deployment he slept in it 5 months and has had it in storage (his permanent address for the last 3 years) ever since! They are a tough bunch the 101st and we are lucky to have them. Thank you for bringing us their stories and pictures and if you get over to the Apaches and 3-1/0 B Co. Blue Max say Hi to Bill (he will be the dirty crew chief) for us, we miss him alot!
Thanks Steve for posting the pictures of the soldiers. It means so much to their families to see their loved one. My son is at Summerall too and I worry about him 24/7 and I am sure your mom is just as worried about you. Your stories help us understand what life is like for our guys. Keep up the good work!
Tessa, Army mom
First time I've read your blog. The pictures with it of the young brave faces made my eyes well up. By the time I got to the end of your entries, and letters from soldiers and parents, I was sobbing. Love our soldiers. Thank you
We love hearing what is happening at Fort Summerall. Our son is stationed there. Keep the photos coming-hopefully, we'll get to see him in one.
Missing our Soldier! Stay Safe.
Been watching your segments on FOX News the last two weeks. Thank you so much for posting photos of the soldiers working with the Iraqis, including our son.
I have been following your coverage since your first ride through the big sandbox with the troops.
Roger H. Willis 1SG USA Ret
This is to say thanks for having my son`s picture on your website here. He is Sgt. Richard Vest. He takes a great photo. Tell him if you see him hello. Thanks again for letting us know more about what is going on there. Look forward to reading more.
Hello, My son is at Summerall. If you see PFC Walters tell him Mom says Hi and I love him.
If you have time, say "Hi" to Ben from his grandparents. He's got some cookies in the mail.
Steve, thanks for the pictures, it brings the war so close to us. They look like such babies.
Your reports on Iraqi training have been fabulous. Your Feb 10 article clears up a lot of confusion for me about this training process. It takes years to form a truly professional military and in this era of instant gratification that fact is extremely uncomfortable. We can't leave Iraq until a professional security force, accountable to the civilian government, is in place.
I really got a jolt out of the pictures you posted today. I found that nearly every face reminded me of someone I know. A friend, an ex-husband, a coworker, Craig looks very much like my youngest son, Adam, who has just joined the Air Force. I pulled up each face a second time and called them by the name they reminded me of and was startled by how differently it felt looking at them again. Of course, it was Craig who made the tears well up.
Very good story, wish you could have been with us in Viet-Nam.
I have recently started reading your blog and it really takes me there and brings back lots of memories. I am a former Field Artillery battery commander and my son is currently in Kuwait. Your description of the Roll Call portion of the ceremony was especially haunting. It brings home the fact that our soldiers know and understand the risks they are taking and yet they are still there serving.
Thanks for your reporting and giving us back home a feel for what is going on. I especially like the mess hall rating system, keep up the good work.
Thank you for your reports from FOB Summerall. It helps to visualize what life is like in the unit. If you run across my son I'd be appreciative if you told him Dad said, "Hi". - Capt.. Jim Lacovara, HHC/1-187-Commo.
I am not unaware of the risk you are taking to provide this layer of reporting... again, thanks.
This was the first time that I have read your column and I found it very enjoyable and interesting. I am in the military and like the way that you handle/tell your stories. Keep up the great work
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