Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Capturing Iraq

I think it's about time I started posting some photos on my blog again. Here are just a few shots that I liked from the ones I took today. I used my Army-issued Nikon D2H. Since I came back from my emergency leave, my job has finally switched to what I like doing most: photojournalist. I take it upon myself to grab my camera with me whenever I go out to lunch. It's a pretty heavy sucker, and I like the D200 body better because it's smaller, more compact and lighter. There was a wicked sandstorm that took over and everything turned orange. Going around and taking pictures beats dropping my butt on a chair all day any day.

Even though I haven't done any real missions or done anything real exciting yet, it's just nice to know that I'm now given the green light to do a job I fee not only comfortable with, but actually good at doing.

In two words: I'm happy.

In any case, enjoy these few shots:

(No, not a camera effect-- your typical dusty day in Iraq)

(Two men unloading chairs from a truck, snapping photos of them while they worked just for fun and give me some practice taking pics of people moving around and working)

(A shot of Lieutenant Glaubach during one of our print meetings-- we dubbed this picture the "thinking shot" where you can just feel the intensive mental braincells cranking away... especially with the "hand over the lips" gesture -- in reality, none of us do any thinking here, at all)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Emergency Leave

I was working on my Iraqi Media Report, gathering information and compiling it for the night's distribution, when Captain Edwards came up looking for me. He said a woman was on the phone looking for me. She said it was important. Edwards works in the Division Operation Center, a classified area. The only person who had the number to call there from the States is Heather, and she knows to call only if an emergency. I walked down the steps and hurried to the phone, my heart calm but my veins tight. I wondered if this was just an "I miss you terribly call."

"This is Staff Sgt. Sauret speaking," I said into the receiver.

"Michel?"

"Yes?"

"It's me."

"Heather?"

"Yes."

"What's going on?" A tremble took over my voice.

She spoke calmly. Told me she had been at the hospital with IV sticking out of her arms. She was home now, recuperating. Then she explained that something terrible had happened.

"It's okay. I'm right here. I'm right here for you. It's okay. Are you okay?"

She started bawling into the phone, and I could hardly hold myself.

"I'm right here for you," I said, feeling like a liar because I was nowhere but away, far, far away, nowhere close to hold her or hug her.

I felt my chest pumping quick bursts of air, breathing fast and in quivers. I spoke as calmly as my lips would allow, but tears swelled in my eyes, and I had to clutch the desk in order to remain standing.

As I hung up, I turned with my eyes soaked and Major Spagel and Edwards looked at me.

"Sgt. Sauret, what's wrong?"

I couldn't speak. I could hardly hold my breath. I put my hands behind my head because I felt my lungs might collapse with the weight of my arms if I hung them by my side. I pulled Spagel aside, and all I could muster was a whisper. I told him what happened in one sickening phrase.

"What did you say?"

But he heard me. He had me sit down, and I think it was more for the shock the news brought to him than to me because I could have remained standing and never even known it. I felt I was swimming in a fog. I told him whatever details I knew.

"I'm sorry, I don't know what to say," he said.

I didn't know either.

"How could this happen?" I asked, not expecting him to answer. "How could something so ugly happen?"

"I've tried to understand things like that," he said. "At one point, when I was struggling with my faith, it was always the question of bad things happening to good people that made it hard for me. My wife and I, we had gone through some counseling and I spoke to our pastor long ago, and he said it's a matter of free will. I never understood that. How God can let bad things happen to his people."

"It's not God I blame," I said. "We're the ones who do this. We're the ones who defy God and do sickening, ugly things to our own."

"You should go home to your wife," he said.

"I just got here."

"That doesn't matter. We all love you."

Before I knew it, Spagel and 1SG Speaks worked on getting me home to see Heather. They made calls to the hospital and coordinated travel with the Red Cross. I was in so much shock, I just returned back to work because I didn't know what else to do. The hours slipped, and I took no notice of where they went. Before I knew it, my watch approached 2200 hrs. Spagel said a flight would leave around 0330, but now it was up to the Battalion commander to grant my leave as an emergency. Spagel posed my case before him, telling him that my wife needed comforting and there was no way I could do so from 6,000 miles away. There was always the option of using up my R&R leave and still go home, but doing so would mean I would not be able to plan a vacation with Heather this coming December. That would mean no trip to Italy or Hawaii depending on where we decided to go.

Either way I was coming home. I waited for the decision in a waiting room upstairs of the Headquarters area. We watched the Shawshank redemption, and it was the scene where Red realizes Dufrain has escaped prison. Then Red goes before the board to see if they will grant him reinstatement into the world.

Finally the Battalion commander called us into the office, shook my hand and granted me the Emergency Leave. The entire trip home was a blur because I was so emotionally spent, I slept through much of it. I traveled from Baghdad International Airport, to Ali al-Salem (in Kuwait), from there they checked my paperwork and a Sgt. 1st Class said they might not let me go because the commander signature looked forged. I didn't say anything. I just went through the process and prayed for the best. In Ali al-Salem, I was sent from one tent to another to get paperwork stamped and get my itinerary coordinated. Finally they gave me a Go.

A rampant dust storm had taken over the base. The wind was so strong that you could lean into it standing and you wouldn't fall. Sand and dust blew into my face, finding their way into the gaps of my teeth and past my sunglasses into my eyes. It hurt to keep my eyes open. I walked toward the tent where I would wait for my bus, and the wind was so strong I had to fight through it. Every step was a lurch of my entire body. I walked with my eyes closed because sand would just blow into them, and without knowing it, I banged my head against a sign in the middle of the walkway. It hurt like heck. Once I got to the waiting tent, I never left it until the bus came because the wind was so strong. I was amazed any flight would even go out in that weather.

I waited some six hours on a bench for a bus to arrive, taking me to the Kuwait City airport. The airport was huge, and everywhere I went I saw men in bright blue and orange uniforms with what looked like paper hats pushing carts and directing people. Men in white robes walked with their families. Some of the younger men wore contemporary clothing... T-shirts and jeans. Some women wore black shawls that showed only their eyes, while other women showed their faces and most of their bodies were covered, and others more wore tight fitting clothes that you would expect from western women dressing moderately. It was a culture in the midst of a mix.

On the plane I sat next to an old woman with deep groves in her face who spoke no English, but tried to communicate with gestures and raspy breaths. She was cute and I helped her with the tray-table or TV-monitor that pulled out from the arm rest. At one point she made gestures and I helped her with her blanked, pulled out the monitor and the table tray when at last I realized all she wanted to know was the time. I showed her my watch because I didn't know how to give the time in Arabic, and promised myself I would get a dictionary or find one of those Arabic booklets the Army gave us for the next time I traveled.

All the while I thought of Heather and tried to fight back the tears.

The flight stretched across the ocean and lasted 14 hours, landing in D.C. From D.C. I waited a few more hours and took a short connection to Pittsburgh. Once we landed, I came out the gate and drifted down the escalator. I saw Heather sitting quietly on a bench, staring ahead. She wore a loose Sunday-type dress that hung from her shoulders and a pair of jeans. Her short hair curled taut around her face. I walked toward her without saying a word. I had traveled in civilian clothes so she stared at me for a long few seconds before she realized it was me. She burst out of her seat and launched herself against my body and hugged me. She quivered in my arms, and it felt so good to hold her.

We talked a little in the car, and toward the end she said she wanted to put Saturday's events behind her. We had ten days to spend together, and she didn't want to talk about what happened any more. I said okay.

We drove toward her parents' house and I watched the hills rolling past us as we skimmed through the highway. It was so weird to be back so suddenly, in such a rush. It almost felt like I never left Pittsburgh... like I was never in Iraq.

I thought about the ten days the Army had granted us. Ten days felt like they would be an eternity then. What would we do with all that time? How many hours could we hope to fill and not waste away? Ten days were too many I thought. I should have asked for five. Five days might be okay, I thought. After five, we might come to the realization of how awkward it was for me to be back.

I told myself again and again that I was not here for myself. I was here for Heather and let her know I came to support her.

During my visit back, we drove out to Gettysburg and stood in awe at the sheer vastness of one of the Civil War's most stunning battlefields. We went out to eat dinner almost every night, caught a few movies, attended church, visited our Pastor at his home and later had dinner at my best man's house, James and his wife, Nicole. At church, several people told me how much they'd liked reading my blogs and emails, and I was touched by their compliments. It meant a lot to me knowing people read my words, and even more to know they actually enjoyed my writing. It was strange because these were only emails and blog entries, yet they too had some literary value. Every person I shook hands with said they were praying for us, and I never knew how to respond. Prayer was by far the greatest act of support we could receive, and I had nothing to give in return. I had already been praying for the sake of the Church and its members, but it would sound cheap to give that a response. So I just smiled back and said thank you.

The most memorable evening was the dinner we ate over James' and Nicole's house. Heather and I brought some pasta and chicken to cook, and after dinner, James pulled me outside for a walk. That gave a chance for Nicole and Heather to talk, but also for me and James.

You know those movie scenes you watch where the screen switches back and forth between the way women talk about guys, and the way married guys talk about their wives or how guys talk about women in general? Your typical conversation would show the women complaining that their husbands don't nurture their needs or listen, and the guys would complain about sex and wanting to be left alone on Sundays.

My conversation with James was nothing like that. Rather, we spoke tenderly of our wives, and of our duties in our household. James reaffirmed my role as a Christian man, and encouraged me to remain strong and loving with Heather. I spoke my worries and my fears and my frustrations as a young married man-- young both in age and in marriage. The main challenge has been that even though Heather and I have been married for 6 months now, we truly spent only a full month or so together living with one another. I spoke with James of my insecurities as a man, and of my wanting to do right by my bride but mostly right under God who is sovereign over our marriage. If I am to stand firm on principles, it's not for my own sake or for my own benefit, but only as an effort to stand strong on God's righteousness and none other.

It was really odd keeping an ear and hearing the way we were talking. No other 23 and 26 year old guys would talk this way about their marriage. I found it a little humorous, because I knew that if I were to copy our dialog and use it in one of my stories, there would be no way any reader would deem the conversation "believable" and yet we spoke so sincerely and with such humility. The difference, I felt, was that we were Christian and we saw this world under different standards. We as Christian men, seek manhood not in our control over our wives or in our financial standards, but in our sacrificial love towards our brides. This is not to say I'm a perfect husband, nor a great one... in fact; I feel that I'm still a very poor husband under many Christian standards, but I knew then that Heather and I had our problems just like any other married couple, but that we would move forward.

When we returned to the house it seemed Heather and Nicole, too, had had a good conversation. Somehow, I found that night as a kind of turning point for the better in our marriage, and I saw that my coming home on emergency leave had turned into a blessing in giving strength back to our young marriage.

Thursday night, Heather and I drove back to the airport ready to say our goodbyes, and when we came to the ticket counter the clerk told us the flight was delayed, so even if I caught the later flight I wouldn't be able to make my connection to Kuwait until Friday night. My options were pretty straight forward... either catch the flight anyway and spend 24 hours at the airport in D.C. or stay home for another night.

Heather cried with joy. She could hardly contain her smile. We celebrated by grilling two big steaks (though Heather's looked minuscule compared to the gigantic T-bone I picked for myself), with corn on the cob and baked potatoes. Rain thundered down on us, but the grill stood under an awning so we didn't care. We devoured our meal and I shared another night with my wife.

We finally did say our goodbyes the next day, and on my 12-hour flight back to Kuwait I would sleep for long stretches of time, and wake up thinking I was laying in bed with Heather. I would reach over to my right, only to whiff at an empty isle between rows of seating. I fell asleep again, and when I woke up this time I almost grabbed the thigh of the guy sitting to my left. Luckily I stopped myself just in time.

I'm now in Ali al-Salem, and the heat is immeasurable. Coming out of the Kuwait airport, I thought the heat might suffocate me. I had forgotten how dry it is. And only 11 days had passed since I was last here. It has definitely gotten hotter. Even though I was gone less than two weeks, it feels like months have slipped away since last standing in this heat.

Back in the desert, surrounded by tents, I felt a kind of sorrow and loneliness that I didn't expect being so powerful. I paced the base for hours, from one end to the other, thinking of ways not to miss Heather. But the truth is that I do, and I do, and I do. I miss her terribly, but I'm glad and thankful of having been able to spend this time with her and I hope to cherish it as we both move forward in our marriage.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Lose Your Mind

Yesterday I spent about an hour int he coffee house listening to a sermon by Gordon Keddie, titled "He Shall Justify Many" covering the prophecy in Isaiah about the coming of Christ. It was a very compelling look at how consistent the message of salvation is throughout the Bible. The cool thing was that SSG Emery joined me to listen to the Sermon, so we got a splitter and hooked two head phones into my ipod instead of one. The whole time I feared whether the message would make her feel uncomfortable, since she's still hesitant in her beliefs in God, and I was afraid the candid tone of the message would intimidate her. But then I took comfort in knowing that this passage felt right with me, and I could do nothing to control how Emery would respond, so instead I concentrated on the message itself, taking in what I could from the sermon.

The whole time I also wished to be at home, sharing in the word of God with my beautiful wife, Heather. I remember how we would read a passage and talk about it at night before going to bed, learning new details found in the scripture. It's mesmerizing what a change Heather's belief in God has brought upon her. It's amazing the change it's brought in me. I told Emery later on how before coming to God I would always be filled with so much impatience and so much rage over the little things. In part, some of that is still present, as I'm not perfect. I told Emery how I tried seeking counseling and even reading self-help book or tried to really dwell on the psychological aspect of my anger. Everything I tried would work for a little while, maybe a week, maybe a month, but I would always return to my anger. The struggle was that I've always believed in God as far back as I can remember, but I had never submitted myself to him. It was only once I made that commitment that I felt my anger vanishing. It wasn't anything I was doing. It wasn't a new tactic or a new perspective, it was just a new dedication that landed beyond myself.

I still have my impatiences, of course, and my turn-around in coming to God is nothing compared to many others I've heard from people's lives. Heather herself has become more kind through God, more tender and caring. She's a woman I've found more and more beautiful ever since she began reading the Bible. And it wasn't because of her. She wasn't becoming more beautiful than she already was. It was because God eased my heart towards her through sharing the Word. It wasn't just something we had in common the way people who love each other have personalities that match or similar interests. This was wind-tunnel, but instead of blowing us away, it pushed us together.

Later, after talking to Emery about some of this, I headed off to work and edited some stories that came in. It seemed like an easy day, since only three stories came in, so I spent some time online looking for publishing houses for my memoir, "Child, Hold Me" which is going to be a tough sell since it's so short.

Then lunchtime came and Javi and Emery asked me if I would go with them to lunch. I looked by my desk to grab my rifle, since the two things you need to enter the chow hall are your weapon and your ID, and my M16 wasn't there. Oh man. Where'd I put it, where'd I put it? My thoughts raced, and then I whispered as if out of shock, "I left my weapon at the coffee house."

Before either Javi or Emery could say anything, I was gone. I scattered down the steps, my legs moving quickly, through the long building, out the door, the sun was low but the air felt like a hair drier... My legs must have been zipping like scissors, and soon I could feel the pain in my shins from walking so fast. I tried to comfort myself... "That's all right, you'll walk right back where you sat and find your weapon just where you left it. Don't worry, it'll be there." Oh God, I prayed, please let it be there. I looked at my watch. About an hour and a half had passed since Emery and I had left the shop. I felt a tension in my chest. How could you leave your weapon behind in a war zone?

That's okay. I'll find it. It will be there.

I stormed into the coffee house and tried to act casual. I looked around as if I had lost nothing more than my book, but I'm sure my eyes were giving me away because Soldiers around took notice of me. On the wall, right there, where I had left my rifle... it was gone.

Ah man. I looked on the floor at all the scattered weapons around. Mine had a light blue C-clip hooked onto the butt of the rifle. None of the weapons around were mine, they all belonged to Soldiers sitting by them. I asked around if anyone had seed my rifle, wild with emotion.

I saw Captain Edwards, my executive office, and he helped me look. Fortunately he had forgotten his weapon the other day when heading off for a drive, so he was more concerned and willing to help than anything else. He wasn't even angry, which relieved me, but it didn't put a rifle back on my shoulder so it wasn't total relief.

I even asked one of the Indian guys working behind the counter, but he said nobody had made note of the missing weapon. Somebody must have grabbed it. It wasn't anywhere in here.

I wanted to cuss then, but I tried to compose myself. It's gotta be somewhere. Maybe whoever noticed it brought it to the Militar Police Station.

I was in trouble if that was the case. If you lost your ID, they sent you to the MP station where you had to sign a counseling statement and made you feel like a fool for losing something so valuable. This was my weapon, though, not just an ID.

I walked to the MP station thinking back to the numerous talks both First Sergeant and Maj. Spagel had given us about securing our weapon.

"You can lose and forget anything you want," Spagel had said on several occasion. "But you better not lose your weapon. That's the last thing anyone should ever leave behind."

I'm done, I thought to myself. I'm so screwed. People are going to have to call me Specialist Sauret from now on. They would demote me for sure. This was my weapon, I thought again. No. Not specialist. Private. They're going to rip off my Staff Sergeant rank and bust me down to private after this. Heather is going to be so mad. Oh man. She's going to be so ashamed of me.

I looked at my rank on my chest. I'm going to miss you little guy, I said to my E-6 emblem. So much for saving up toward a trip to Italy. I was angry and scared and ashamed all at once.

At the MP station I said hello to the Sergeant behind the glass and asked if anyone had brought in a weapon. There was no other way of inquiring about the weapon in any less ridiculous way.

Some guy in a PT uniform gave me smile that said, "So you're the idiot."

I returned the look with one that said, "Yes, I'm the idiot."

The Sergeant asked me for the serial number of the weapon, I gave it to him, and he checked it agians the rifle. It was mine. Thank goodness! Now what though? They would have to file charges. They would have to track the incident with paperwork. They might even keep me in a holding cell until I admitted to everything that happen. They would make me cry and do push-ups and stick me in jail, surround in a circle of military police men and laugh at me...

The sergeant handed me a piece of paper.

"All right, go ahead and sign this."

Sure, anything, I'll sign anything. The paper was just a statement that an Australian trooper had found the weapon and brought it to the station, and all I was doing was signing to get it back.

"So what happens now?"

"Here's your weapon."

"So that's it."

"We're supposed to report it to Corp, but the weapon's been in here only ten minutes. Figured someobody would come by and pick it up. We haven't had a chance to call it in yet. We'll just keep the paperwork for record."

Just like that, they sent me back into the "war" with my weapon slung from my shoulder.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Care package

Heather sent me a huge box for a care package and it arrived yesterday, plus a little one she mailed at the same time filled with granola snack bars. She sent so much stuff! Even a big pound bag of organic coffee. I just gotta find a decent coffee maker because all the ones around the office are pretty crappy. I can't wait to make the first brew, though.

I realized though that receiving the care package doesn't really quite fill the void. No new theme here. Stuff is just stuff. It's nice having a big bag of beef jerky, but what I'm really missing is the people. I wish I could receive a big care package of family and friends from back home. If there was only a way for you all to send part of yourselves. That's what really lifts my spirits. Heather already does that with emails she sends and talking on the phone. I still miss her terribly, and I thought that at least receiving a care package from her would make it seem like she was with me. I always loved it when I was home or hanging out with her, and she would surprise me with little treats. I always thought it was the treats themselves-- the goodies-- that I loved. Man is that shallow. What an idiot.

Really it was the fact of Heather giving it to me. And I know that's obvious. I know I'm not blowing anybody's mind with any of this... but it's strange how I never appreciated the gesture before. I always thought I appreciated the deed.

It's hard to enjoy goodies, though, when you don't have people to enjoy them with. Sure, sometimes I want to horde chocolates all to myself and not share with anyone... and there have been times when a simple, delicious Ferraro Roche could lift my spirit for an entire day. I guess it's the chemicals in the chocolate, I don't know. But it doesn't really work the same here.

To tell the truth (and I'm sure I've said this plenty of times already) it's not just that I miss my family and wife and church... I miss my own unit. We're all so split apart and scattered with so many different hours that we barely get to see one another. We barely get to laugh together the way we would in Kuwait or during training at Fort Dix. If I can't have my wife with me, I wish I could at least have my own unit. There's something just joyful about receiving a care package and sharing it with your buddies, because then the deed from home seems to be that much more powerful. They're not just caring for you, but they're caring for your fellow Soldiers as well.

I have to admit, I'm terrible at sharing. Like I said, I'm definitely guilty of hoarding... but right now I really wish I had somebody to join me with a snack of beef jerky and granola bars. I don't think I can eat all of them myself.

Oh and I just wanted to include a picture of the Kinder eggs Heather sent... I guess the heat wasn't too good for them.

I still ate one today and it was delicious. You should have seen me try to peel the wrapping off, though. I did it in the bathroom where people looked at me like I was loony. The chocolate was so yummy!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Taking the lake hostage

Yesterday morning I kidnapped the lake here, and I'm not letting it go. It was beautiful being able to go on a long walk, taking the minutes at my own pace. Here are a few pictures I snapped.(It almost looks like a vacation spot, doesn't it?)








(Can you hear the desert chiming?)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Dog Faced Soldier

Yesterday we met the commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Lynch, and we were kind of nervous because 1st Sgt. Speaks told us we might have to sing the "Dog Face Soldier" song in front of them, which is kind of a big deal for the 3 ID soldiers. So, as we waited for the general to arrive at the media operations center, we were all pacing back and forth, reading over the song, correcting each other over this word or that word, the whole time creating a hybrid melody because none of us really knew how it went.

I Wouldn't Give A Bean
To Be A Fancy Pants Marine,
I'd rather Be A Dogfaced Soldier Like I Am.

I Wouldn't Trade My Old O.D.'s
For All The Navy's Dungarees
For I'm The Walking Pride Of Uncle Sam;

On All The Posters That I Read
It Says The Army Builds Men
So They're Tearing Me Down To Build Me Over Again

I'm Just A Dogface Soldier
With A Rifle On My Shoulder
And I Eat A Kraut For Breakfast Everyday.

So Feed Me Ammunition,
Keep Me In The Third Division,
Your Dogfaced Soldier is A Okay.

Speaks sang it the best with his jazzy broadcast voice. He kind of put every one of us to shame, but he already knew it from having deployed with the 3rd ID before.

The entire time as we rehearsed the song and waited for the general to arrive felt a little bit like a surprise party. Every time the door opened we braced, eyes wide and then finally relaxed when we saw it was someone else. In the end when he finally did come we just said hello and introduced ourselves and that was it. He went into another room to conduct an interview, and we all just stood around thinking, "Was that it?"

"Go on, scatter before he comes back," 1st Sgt. said.

The problem now is that the darn melody, now that I know it, is stuck in my head. This morning I went running and I couldn't get the first three lines of the song out of my head. "I wouldn't give a bean..."

The reality is that I don't give a bean about the 3rd ID, and I'm so happy to see more and more Soldiers with the 10th Mountain patch on their shoulder around here. Two nights ago we finally moved into our CHUs (containerized housing unit). The rooms aren't big once you have to split it with a room-mate but it's a heck of a lot better than staying in a tent. The bed is comfy and I finally have a closet to keep all my clothes and army junk organized.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Just some shots



I'm not going to go word-heavy with this entry. Just wanted to upload some photos I haven't had a chance to do lately.

Enjoy!(Center four: 1SG Speaks, 1LT Glaubach, me, MAJ. Spagel) at the "Forgotten Soldier" monument in Baghdad.

My very first ride in a Blackhawk.

(I'm so strong!)

(Sitting on the throne in Saddam's al-Faw palace)

(Toby Keith concert at Camp Victory)

Monday, April 28, 2008

War is hell

Yesterday we hopped on a Rino-- a big, lumbering, square bus coated in four inches of armor-- and rode to the International Zone, located in downtown Baghdad. The city is absolutely beautiful, vast and open with flush palm trees and ... yes, grass. There are five palaces built by Saddam within a five mile radius. We visited one of the shrines, The Forgotten Soldier, and a New Iraqi Army Soldier gave us a quick tour of the area. The Soldier said Saddam built all of the palaces and when in power only he was allowed to visit them and look inside.



In the distance, while he talked to us, a gun-fight broke out ... but within seconds heavy gunnery shot back and it quieted right away. The shots were so far away that it was only a barage of pops and tat-tat-tat. We didn't even have any of our gear on. We didn't even have our weapons with us. But it was so far away that it hardly even fazed me.


Later we visited a Soldier who went to the hospital after getting bitten by a stray cat (of all the things you can get yourself into in Iraq, this wouldn't have been one of my top guesses). We sat by the windows waiting, and all of a siren blared and a loud-speaker voice warning "Incoming... Incoming..."


"Move from the glass, let's go, let's go," one of the Army nurses shoed us away, but she was no more worried than a mother telling her children to hurry across an intersection. We huddled a few yards deep into the hallway and a loud blast exploded.


"Man, that felt close," I said.


"Oh, that was nothing. You should have been here yesterday," a young Specialist said.


"I don't think we'll can do our PT test today," someone said to a muscular guy wearing shorts and a t-shirt.


"Oh, we're taking it today. No doubt about it."


"Yeah, that'll make you run faster."

Later we returned to this lodging area where Soldiers go for "Freedom Rest" on pass. Beautiful swimming pool in the back with a 15-foot and a 35-foot diving ramps, all encircled by a stone court yard. War is hell, I thought to myself. Maj. Spagel and I went to the bathroom and changed into our swim trunks. We walked to the pool with a swagger, carrying our uniforms in our arms, ready to jump into the cool water on a hot day--

"Warning: Incoming. Incoming. Incoming."

Oh man. Just when we were going to relax. I turned back around and started jogging toward the building-- BOOM!-- I felt the explosion punch me in my ear. My heart double-rolled, and my jogging turned to a sprint. Then I realize the entire back side of the building is glass. No turning back now-- I run through the door, and run up the stairs as far away from the windows as I can. Then another mortar comes down, more faint-- barely audible over my own heart beat. Everyone who'd been relaxing outside ran in, and they all looked around for accountability.

Man... that one was close. I had actually felt it in my ear.

A little later, the Major and I walked over to see where the mortar struck and we find a hole-blast into a wall just 70 meters from where we'd been standing.

(Caption: You missed)

Later on I see a group of people huddling over a coffee table filling out some paperwork.

"Is that for accountability?" I asked First Sergeant.

"No. They're putting in a sworn statement for CAB."

"CAB?"

"Combat Action Badge?"

"No I know what CAB is, but for what?"

"For the mortar."

I thought it over for a minute. To be eligible for a CAB you either have to be involved in a fire fight or have a mortar land within 100 meters of where you're standing. The mortar had hit just beyond the courtyard. Some of the people in the pool had been as close as 40 or 50 meters from the hit. I could shoot an insurgent between the eyes at that distance. Yet, even though on paper the blast was legitimate for a CAB, something about this felt awfully wrong.

None of us even had our weapons with us when the blast happened. These people were in a swimming pool splashing one another and floating along. The Major and I were just strolling along with our uniforms folded in our arms. This didn't deserve a badge with the title "combat" written on it.

When one of the Soldiers asked how to spell my name I said, "Don't put my name on that. Don't put my name on that." I said it twice, the second time even more calm than the first. I didn't speak harshly or with disdain... but simply with a tone refusing an invitation. Thank you, but I can't.

I thought of those Soldiers who lived in tents their whole deployment, shot down enemies who shot back, kicked in doors and dug up weapon caches every day. Those were the men and women who deserved badges. Anyone else would just cheapen their accomplishments and sacrifices. I was by the pool, I told myself. I didn't even have my weapon. I don't want a CAB unless I've earned it. I didn't come here for decorations and self-pats on the back. If I ever get a CAB during this deployment, I better have been firing my weapon at enemies.

------

Finally that night I hopped on a Blackhawk for the first time in my life. In the past, any time I had a chance to fly, the flight was either canceled for weather or plans changed. In five years in the Army, I had never flown on a helicopter before. The feeling was awesome.

The chopper blades spinning blew wind in our faces as we approached the helicopter. We mounted up, and I grabbed a seat-- but First Sergeant moved aside and had me take the seat by the window so I could have a better view. Flying in a helicopter was nothing like being in a plane.

When we took off we simply swooped up in the air. There was no turbulence. There was only gravity and anti-gravity. I could actually feel us lifting off the face of the world, scoffing at the pull of the earth. It was just like being pulled up by a bungee-rope. So sudden and swift. Then, up in the air, we simply floated, and coming back down was so smooth-- not like the skidding and skipping along the runway on a plane like a stone across a pond's surface. It was up in the air that I felt liberated from the world's pains because everything looks so small. You can't see murder from up in the air. You don't get to witness a culture worshiping a false prophet or pledging their fidelity to family tribes regardless of the corruption it may bring. Even in a chopper full of people, nobody can talk to you because the spinning blades diffuse it all. Nobody can touch you. It's not that you're closer to God up in the air on a helicopter... we're close to God no matter the altitude or latitude... but at least I felt less stained or tainted by the World. I was still only a man, and still a sinner-- but at least in part detached... if only for a few minutes of flying.




Saturday, April 26, 2008

Living the heat

Walking outside in 106 degree heat is like walking through a dream. Everything feels distant, and it's hard to keep my eyes open. I wonder if I could ever handle donning my IBA in the desert. Even the sand reflects the heat back at my face. When I walk into a cool building, I can feel my uniform radiating what it absorbed from the sun.

The good thing is you don't sweat in it-- it's too dry. But I feel drained by the sun in just a five minute walk. I wan't to crawl into my bunk and take a nap after every lunch. The hardest part is that I have no desire for drinking coffee, though I need something to wake me up.

Yesterday felt like I passed my entire day through a haze. It's hard to concentrate on writing and copy editing. It's a struggle just making it past the lead. Sometimes it all becomes just a jumble of letters and clustered words.

Yesterday, though, we received the first killed in action press release since I've been here. It was a strange feeling. The page was mainly blank. The release stretched only four lines long. The phrasing of it was so vague and general. "The name of the deceased is being withheld until next of kin are notified." It could have been anybody anywhere, and yet this dealt with a real Army Soldier killed by an explosion. That's all the page would tell me, no matter how many times I scanned it for more information.

I tried asking Renanah, the current editor training me, about the release, if any media would do a story on the Soldier, if we would do a follow up. She seemed so unfazed-- to her, this might have been just one of hundreds. The only thing changed was the date and mode of death. It felt so weightless... insignificant... and yet someobody home would spill heavy tears over this. Would they find out in person? By phone call? By letter? Nothing would make the death feel any lighter.

And yet, here it was, in front of my own eyes-- the statement of death-- only as heavy as a piece of paper. There seemed something unjustified about it. I fooled myself into believing that I deserved to know more... but I didn't. Likely, I would have never recognized the name even if it had been printed. Any more explanation or details on his death wouldn't have changed the outcome.

And yet, I felt I responsible for his news at my fingertips. I expected any moment the Soldiers family calling me to know all about it. I feared my vulnerability to not knowing. I feared my own vulnerability of sitting inside an office building surrounded by concrete walls, a long, long shot away from mortar attacks.

I think of the heat now, and I wonder how we're not flooded by death press releases every day. I wonder how anyone can survive in this heat outside of air-conditioned offices.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Grassland

Grasslands beyond the gate. (This picture didn't come out as dramatic as it is in real life. I will try to use a different camera. This is the gate through which I walk every day back and forth from work to my tent. Every time I see this grass through this opening in a vast gray wall, I sense there is hope. Finding green amongst the sand is a rarerity).


Check out how packed this bus is from all our stuff! We had to feed boxes and bags through the window eventually.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Escape into memories

Yesterday I sat down at the chow hall by myself. There's something sad about that. There's something hollow about eating a meal alone-- surrouned by people, yes, but no one you feel comfortable enough to share a conversation with. Everyone's hours are sporatic and at different intervals, so it's tough to find the time in eating as a whole unit. It feels like we're a broken-up family now. I used to believe that I would at least have my own family here to support me and talk to while away from my own back home. I see the tired look in everybody's faces. Most of us are worn by job positions that offer no escape.

I ate my prime rib and baked potatoes alone. A Soldier sat across the table a few seats to my right. His eyes dazed into space. I watched him for a minute, wondering if he'd notice. What is he picturing, I thought? It could have been anything. He could have been pleased by random memories or destroyed by thoughts he couldn't word.

He was wearing his gray PT uniform, so I didn't know what his rank was. He looked twenty years old or so. He wore a tattoo of tall blades of grass running from his wrist up to his elbow. I had seen plenty of sleeve tattoos before, but never grasslands before.

"Are you all right?" I asked him.

The daze broke in his eyes. He gave me a half-embarresed smile.

"Oh, yeah I'm okay."

"What'chu thinking about?"

"Just memories. I get lost in them sometimes."

"I hope they're good ones."

He seemed pleased by this. Part of me had feared he was contemplating suicide, but I saw this wasn't the case now.

"They're a strange thing, memories... you know? How they change."

"That's true. Sometimes I'll write something down that happened and then my wife reads it and says, 'That's not how it happened.'"

He gave this some thought. Maybe this wasn't what he had meant, but I felt a need to talk to this lost-stared Soldier. It was awkward. He sat just far enough where I had to project my voice, but close enough that now I felt the need to continue the conversation.

"Memories are a dialectical thing," he said.

Since I didn't know what he meant, I simply nodded. Soon after, he picked up his tray, said 'good talking to you' and left.

I sat there, thinking if I had any memories I could describe as "dialectical." I had no clue what the word meant. I think now that my entire deployment in Iraq will be just like this moment at the chow-hall... recognized only because I chose to write down the small details. This is my life now, and because I can't talk about my job with anyone other than Soldiers with security clearances... and because I barely escape from my office as it is... what else is there to write about? What philosophies do I have to offer? What dialectical memories can I hold and pass on for you to change and make your own?

I have to make my memories, instead of simply recording them. I have to force against the forces of the day and make something happen out of nothing. I would make for a poor historian. I would taint all the facts. I don't think I could be a journalist the way the Army wants me to be-- I would commentalize (and make up words like this one) over every event. I wasn't cut out for journalism, but maybe God will use that in my favor.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The War of Peace

We flew into Baghdad International Airport in the doorway of night. Here, finally, we had something different. Even in Kuwait there had been the illusion of still being at home. The Army does a good job in preparing Soldiers to face deployment and living in FOBs (forward operating bases), but even at Camp Buehring, Kuwait all of the locals spoke english, we had a Starbucks and a McDonald and a philly-cheesesteak shop. There was still the illusion of traveling within the US because we had flown in a commercial airline.

Flying into Baghdad was different. We strapped our IBA's to our chests and buckled our chin-straps and then wedged ourselves into a C130 cargo plane. The seats were nothing more than a long stretch of webbing running down the center and sides of the plane. We sat facing one another, knees bumping and elbows tucked in tightly.

Coming off the plane we walked far out from the aircraft to escape the heat of the engines, but we still had to cross in front of the heat tunnels. The immensity of that heat was amazing. I tried to walk faster across it, but it felt like I was walking right into it. I'm going to catch flame, I thought. I'm going to burn up. I held my breath, afraid the oxygen in my lungs would evaporate away.

From the airport we loaded an entire shuttle bus with our luggage. We had to stuff bags in through the window because there were to many to load in through the door. On the second shuttle we stacked up our ballistic vests in a big pile, and joked that now the bus was up-armored. We rode through the maze torn streets, surrounded by 20-foot walls made of concrete. There were so many of these walls you could build the colluseum out of them. I wondered what the Iraqi government might do with all that concrete once the American forces leave. What will they build with them? More war? A safehaven for the children and women?

Over top all of the walls, rolls of barbed wire stretched like an infinite line of pulled, metal twine. Small cayotes scampered around the roads. Palm trees lined our path, and that awful familiarization creeped in again. This place reminded me of Corpus Christi, TX... a small desert-like city with only the illusion of vegetation spotted along the roads.

The thought saddened me, because I wanted the feeling of home to go away. Not the comfort of home, but the feeling that I haven't quite begun my deployment yet. The feeling that whispered, "there are people who miss you..." The feeling that asked, "when will you begin to count down the months?"

We unloaded the bus and found a vacant tent we could take over. Living out of the bag is one of the most discomforting sensations. When you have to pull clothes out of your bag rather than from a closet, there's no routine in your day. It's all a matter of grab as you go. For 3 months now I'v been waiting for a place to settle in... and we're not there yet. Soon, in two weeks maybe, we'll move our stuff out into a trailer-- but even then we may have to move again once the 10th Mountain comes in to tell us they want to divide their Soldiers into living quarters differently.

There is no home away from home.

It was a feeling I thought I could cope with, until last night. I know this is War, and I know that in War you don't get to pick and choose the way you want to live out the year the way you might order from a menu. You don't choose your entre and then add desert. You take what they give you and you say, "Yes Sir" afterwards because, remember... it can always get worse.

Except last night I felt like I dropped from the sky. Back in Kuwait our Major told everyone what their job position would be for the upcoming 10 months. He also added the disclaimer, "All of this may change at any moment." And it did.

Originally my position was to fly with the Commanding General around the different areas assigned to 3rd ID as the Battlefield Circulator. I thought, how cool-- to travel around and see Iraq, gain access to places most people would never be able to touch, take pictures of the General with village leaders and Soldiers who fight every day for the restoration of this country. I would come back to the States with an incredible wealth of experience. I would fill my blog with all sorts of beautiful pictures and life-reflecting thoughts and stories. I would discover my sensitivity to the people of Iraq, to the poverty and wealth that have clashed, to the leadership working together to set a country torn by dictatorship back into democracy.

All of those pieces dropped from the sky when the Major told me my job had changed to "Press Release Editor." In an instant I saw the ten months ahead of me fill-up with smoke. I was going from Helicopter-rider to desktop-bound. Later Major Spagel told me he saw my exact emotions draw up on my face. I don't hide that stuff too well.

During that meeting I lost all sensible words. They took flight from my mind and what filled the area was a gaggle of demonic cusswords and cursings. After the meeting, I left the tent and hooked around.

"Sauret? Sergeant Sauret?" Emery called after me.

I ignored her. I felt the moon mocking me from the sky. She called me again and approached, I walked in the other direction, father down-- all I wanted to do was cry. Cry because of all the potential lost. All of the story telling I would never tell. All the pictures I would never imagine. For the first time since the deployment I questioned God why he would place me into that position. What good would I do from behind a computer? I would rather live the grunt's life than become a FOBBIT-- a fat hobbit who's stuck on the FOB. Don't I have better talents than this God? Don't I know how to operate a camera?

Press release editor. Press release editor. Those words wouldn't leave my head.

I couldn't escape that moon, that eye laughing at me from the night. So I just stood under it and cried. I cried for the lost months I hadn't even lived yet. I cried for lost opportunities.

Then I heard Lieutenant Glaubach say, "I know you're upset but that doesn't mean you can just ignore everyone."

I wouldn't face her for the first second, but then I remembered where we are. This is Iraq. This isn't the comfort of Army Reserve anymore.

"I didn't anyone to see me like this." I sounded aweful. I sounded like a large child who'd been denied his toy.

"I was ordered to come here and talk to you." She sounded brash, her words softened once she saw the tears on my face.

"I'm sorry. I don't want to talk right now. I want to think things over."

"Tell me what you're thinking." It wasn't a suggestion. It was an order.

"I was afraid of this. I was afraid of getting pigeon-holed into an office and never get to go out."

"I understand you're upset, but you're a staff sergeant now, and unfortunately the main word there is staff. You just got promoted, and sure the pay is nice, but the job changes."

I stood at parade rest, trying to regain whatever scraps of military bearings and self respect I had thrown out by running off from everyone.

"You can relax," she said. "I'm not yelling at you."

I let my arms lax a bit, but I kept them behind my back. She was right. I'm a Staff Sergeant and there's no excuse for tears right now.

"Believe it or not we chose you because you were best for the job," she said. She talked about her own position, and how unhappy she was with being stuck doing the same type of work I might be doing. She explained how, unfortunately, I was chosen because the command could trust me to represent our unit. And when people trust you, they want you around. They want you close by to bail them out when in need-- and not off somewhere in the desert talking to privates and specialists and snapping their picture.

I tried to console myself in that thought, but it still felt like swallowing a hard-boiled egg. She was cracking and peeling off the shell, but it was still a tough thing to swallow. Lingering over my head were ten months of desk-jockey-filled hours of copy editing. I saw myself attached to a red pen in hand, scribbling away at press releases.

I learned to be a little less selfish in those moments, though. Later, Major Spagel himself admitted that his position wasn't what he expected. Except he changed his prespective by telling himself, "I don't care if I don't like the job, I will learn everything I can about it and become the best PAO commander that I can be."

It's still tough for me to embrace those words. Though, this morning I received a card from heather, and on the inside flap she wrote: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3:5-6).

I had always been so good at reassuring Heather and in telling her to trust God even when our situation seems so wrecked, and yet I'm failing now to follow my own advice. I'm still a little disheartened-- even more so after talking to the print editor today and her telling me that she pulls 15-hour work shifts seven days a week and still hasn't found a chance to keep afloat the pile of work that comes her way.

I'm going to commit myself to these next 5 days where I'll be learning the job and pray that God blesses me with understanding and find ways to make the workload more manageable.

I'm still searching for that inner peace that will keep me calm and I don't know how to find it. I know that the only place where I will find it is in the Lord, but in what measures? Under what light? Through which scripture or passage?

I know that secretely everybody at home is happy to hear the kind of job I'll have, but I can't live ten months off of everybody else's happiness when they're 6500 miles away. I need God's happiness, and I don't know how to open up to it. I don't know how to receive it.

My father shot me an email saying that only through an inner struggle-- an inner war-- will we learn to appreciate that peace. Also my father in law told me similar reassuring words: "Even if you don't like the job, find a way of making it work for you."

I pray for that guidance, and I pray for that inner peace.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Longing for Kickball

Today a beautiful sunset welcomed us as we walked out of the chow hall. A big orange ball hung in the distance. It was the first time the sky has felt so close in Kuwait. Normally we have gray skies that look like nobody will ever touch. Except that sun touched us, and it was perhaps the first time it’s felt so harmless. Tired and going to rest. Not blazing down on us like an oven’s flame.

(This picture doesn't do it justice for how close this sun looked)

Once the night came upon us, we went out and played kickball. We grabbed some sandbags and plotted our bases. This is the first time in a while I can remember going out and playing group sports several nights in a row. The other day it was volleyball, yesterday basketball and a bit of football, and today the old school kick-ball. Man is that game fun. I love charging that ball rolling toward home, skipping and hopping over pebbles and rocks as it comes to you… and you just whack it with your foot. There’s not many other little pleasures that are as satisfying as that.

And I feel this new energy come up in me when we play these sports. It’s not just the joy of being a kid again. It’s aggressiveness. These claws grip onto my chest and my eyes turn to fire, and my voice just gets… loud. I become like troop leader in the battlefield. It’s like a force.
The last time I remember becoming this aggressive was on a role-play convoy out on Fort Dix.

It was mainly just the NCO’s (non commissioned officers) riding in the trucks while the officers and the first sergeant set up an ambush on us. I was the driver of the third vehicle, and as soon as I saw them coming out with towels wrapped on their heads and black shirts on those same claws clenched my chest and my voice—man my voice… I was screaming. “LET’S GET THEM! MOW THEM DOWN!” I handed Lopez my weapon and ammo, told her to get up on the turret and unleash every single round on them. I didn’t want the magazines back unless they were empty.

Later, after our kickball game I got to thinking when was the last time I played the sport. Must have been around 13 or 14, I thought. Five or six years ago. No that’s wrong. Six or seven years ago… not that still wasn’t right. How old am I? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? Man.. I’m twenty three years old already. I still remember the feeling of being thirteen and that was… man, ten whopping years ago. I haven’t played kickball in ten years, and here we were—in Kuwait—at it again.

There was some joy to that. I talked to Spc. Javi about that, and he said how he used to play basketball all the time.

“I used to have some moves, you know?” he said with his Equadorian accent. “Now, no more.”

“Yeah but you’re still whooping,” I told him. And it was true. For a thirty-plus-year-old man he had dominated that game of ball yesterday. “You’re at least twice, no, three times as good as I played.”

“Yeh, but I used to be better.”

He looked sad for that long stretch of seconds. And I realize that’s how we tend to look at the past. With such longing. Such sadness. But if ten years from now I’ll look back on today and feel longing, then how will I fear ten years after that? That means our life is only getting better. We’re never going to reach a point in life without longing for a few years earlier. Even when we’re eighty we’ll look back at seventy. That mean’s seventy ain’t half bad. That means 23 is pretty darn good, and we can find only more to long for in the future.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Words of a mother

My mother just sent me an email with some really encouraging words. She wrote in Italian so I'll translate as best I can. This is in response to my blog from last night...

"A hero is not who eats badly or who sleeps worse; a hero is he who day after day does the will of God in the best way possible, loving those around him, without ever (or almost ever) losing courage. Therefore, congratulations in having honor in your own battle. A great hug, mamma."

That's really encouraging. I love you mom.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Crippled Man Walks to Heaven

Today I felt fear over this deployment for the first time. It just dawned on me that we're going to war. Funny thought to have when you're sitting in Kuwait and home is thousands of miles away. It's hard to take in the image of war when you're eating from a chow hall that supplies eight different types of juice boxes, has an espresso machine, a sandwhich bar, a pasta bar, a taco bar, and a dessert bar... all on top of the regular food at the front of the line. To us, most of what we see now is down time.


The FOB we're in now feels no different than the training forts at Fort Polk, Irwin or Dix. The weather is hotter, sure, and when I call home there's a seven hour difference between me and Heather... but for the most part all of this felt just like more of the same training environment we've gone through before. At Dix, when we drove down the road from the FOB we could simply switch on our flashers and the role-player insurgents knew we were "out of play." Here, there is no such thing. There is no "out of play." Everything here is real. All of our rounds we load into the magazine have a green tip. All and any explosion we encounter is meant to take a life. We're not playing Soldier anymore. We are Soldiers.

I woke up to this today. I woke up because suddenly Maj. Spagel was talking about sending us out on missions, and having us live with different Brigade Combat Teams for periods of month at a time. Snyder and Conrad will be in a camp just outside of Bagdad, only difference is they're tasked to an infantry unit that's filled with Warriors who know how to take lives. Yes we're public affairs. But we will bleed as any other warrior.

Snyder and Conrad's new brigade summarized their mission to just a few words, "To find as many enemy as possible and kill them." That's it. Their Colonel is a guy who looks like he could chew bullets. Hard eyes and cold fists. The first words he spoke to Snyder and Conrad were, "By joining our unit, you are now bad-ass mother*******." Which meant, you are one of us now. You chew bullets if we tell you to chew them, and kick in doors if we need you to bust them in.

Part of me feels guilty because, as of right now my mission, is the Battle Field Circulator... what this means is I will be riding around in helicopters with the Division commander (Major General Oates) and serve as his own personal photographer and media relations personnel. I will get to meet key leaders, Sheiks, political advisers on both sides of the war efforts. And I wonder, where will I be sleeping and eating while my fellow soldiers bundle themselves in cots and eat preservative-filled meals out of MRE bags? Think of where a General might eat. Think of where he might sleep. If I'm to follow him around, will they place me on a cot? Will they feed me a meal that won't expire until every other creature on this earth has gone extinct?

That's an intimidating position, being with a General at all times, but how intimidating can it be compared to hanging around with soldiers who cuss and spit and kill because it's now their way of life? I thank God, in a sense, I don't have to be immersed in that world directly but that's borderline cowardliness on my part.

I like to think I could be a hero. Everyone here wishes he could be one. Everyone. We wouldn't have joined the Army otherwise. But I don't know if I have it in me to tough it out the way these guys will have to. Just tonight I felt my nerves twist in knots just because it took me a half hour to load up my internet connection. Could a bunch of infantrymen take me seriously? Could I?

I'm no hero. I'm no saint. I'm no fool, either. I know what I am capable of (physically, emotionally, spiritually) and I know what I'm not capable of. If I needed to, yes, I would be able to shoot the enemy. I love my wife more than these fundamentalists claim to love their Allah, and I will make sure I will see my love and they will see... well, I have a feeling it won't be Allah they'll see. And I'm sorry for this twisted type of mentality and thinking. I don't mean to scare anyone, but I do have to be realistic about what's going on.

I know darn well that every one of my prayers goes out to God each night, and I constantly pray for Heather whose faith in the Lord seems stronger and stronger by the day. I pray for her family, her parents, her sisters, her brother who is also in the military and especially for our new nephew Cayden. I pray for my own family, my parents who seem to work harder than ever, for my sisters, my brother, and baby Mica. My prayers expand and go out to every one of our church members at Providence, Rut especially who has been a great encouragement this entire time. I pray for my friends, and for friends lost because of paths crossed and uncrossed. And on top of it all I pray for the Soldiers in my unit and those fighting against Terrorism every day as if it was their life... because it is.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Hello Kuwait


We flew into Kuwait City in the heart of the night. We lost an entire day just by travel. The hours slipped away somewhere in the airflow between Baltimore and Germany, between Germany and Kuwait. Coming low into Kuwait, I watched the city lights. I have never seen ao many lights spread out across a city so flat, roads so evenly spaced. Flying in, I had expected to see a city half-lit, half-torn in jumbles of streetlights and mis-shapen buildings. Instead every light, every building looked as if placed by a ruler... a mathmatician's dream.


Lights in the American cities have always looked so scattered, bright yes, but uneven, which made the illumination look hasty and tossed like beads by children. But I guess when you have a land so flat as you have here in Kuwait, it's not too difficult to make at least the streetlights look orderly. The parking lots were a different story. Cars parks at jagged angles, following no lines or posted spaces. It looked like a city you might see in California... not here, halfway across the world in a place so close to war.

Stpping off the plane hit me with an even bigger surprise. Coming off, I braced myself for a cold gust laced with sand. Nothing. The air was so warm I thought I had forgotten to breathe. The time was one in the morning, and the temperature hanging in the seventies. It took me two or three more breaths before I realized the gust wasn't going to come. Warm, still air. Stale. Heavy. I couldn't even imagine what it would be like once the sun came up.


From the plane we boarded buses with Mercedes-Benz emblems on the front. We rode to the nearest forward operating base (FOB), received some briefs, rode to another FOB and relaxed for the day. The place is dusty. You can't walk anywhere without getting grits in your teeth. A rainstorm just hit us, though, and we'll see how it affects the dustbowl effect.

The food is good at least. They have little Kuwaiti men working the chow hall. They're dressed in white button-up shirts and hats that resemble 1930's icecream-man type. The chow is good, and most of the food items have arabic labels.

Walking into the porter-johns is always a surprise. The walls are ravaged by foul graffiti and nasty images. The thing that shames me the most about it is knowing that its fellow Soldiers who write that stuff. There's little concern within me to believe that this is a "holy" war.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Guten-Flight


Hey everyone,

Right now I'm in Ramstein, Germany. Flying into here looked the same out the window as any back-country place. Even the cars look the same for the most part. This is really becoming a unified world. You can go anywhere and find elements of familiarity. The only thing I'm missing is the people who make home a home.

At the Baltimore airport I had a last hurrah, and ordered a tall glass of Bass beer. Most of the unit squeezed in a couple of taxis and went to DuClaws bar. They pretty much had their rounds and came back to the airport less than totally sober. I was going to go with them but not enough room in the cabs, but all I wanted was one beer and not a frat feast.

The signs outside here say "Keep off grass" but I took a step on the grass anyway just so that I could say I stepped on german soil. They have a USO lounge here with free wifi. We flew out of Baltimore. Suddenly I feel a bit disconnected because I can no longer text any of you on the fly. This is my only source of release. My thoughts and feelings come to you through here.

Just so you know, it really means a lot to me for you to read this. It makes me feel like people care about my mission. Please leave comments from time to time, or simply shoot me an email.

In a few hours we'll board the plane again to Kuwait. I don't know what the living conditions will be like, but hopefully we won't have to spend too much time there. I'm excited to get going and start writing. I'm excited about meeting Soldiers and learn their stories. I'm excited about serving my country. I've been receiving a good bit of education money up until now from Uncle Sam and it was about time that I paid him back.

Right now

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Getting Ready to Leave

So today is a big waiting day... We're just sitting around for now until the bus comes to take us to the airport. We'll probably have to wait a few more hours once there until boarding the plane for a long, long flight. I'll snap plenty of photos-- nothing exciting yet but check out all of our luggage!!!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

GOODBYE PITTSBURGH

You never really know how tricky it is to say goodbye until you actually have to go through it. There's always that tendency to say, "Well, I'll see you later..." but when you're deploying to Iraq and you'll be gone for about a year, "later" sounds awfully close to a lie. I do shut off my emotions when I go through my goodbye's. I'm almost afraid that people will think I don't mean it, or that I don't care. As if it made no difference if I don't see them again for another year or not. The truth is that I cut myself off from my emotions because I know I won't be able to control myself otherwise. If I give it too much thought, then I'll get that pang in my nose, then it'll work both up to my eyes and down to my stomach... two directions at once. After that, there's no going back and the tears come next.

Heather looks at me and asks me how I can be so strong in saying goodbye to everyone. I have no answer to that because keeping a straight face takes no strength at all in my opinion. Strength is letting go and cry. Strength is being able to handle the tears when the steamroll your body from your stomach all the way up to your eyes. That's strength. Being able to take the hits instead of ducking behind a veil of stability.

Yesterday, Heather and I took James and Nicole out to eat at Il Pizzaiolo to celebrate my birthday and new promotion. James and Nicole have been working long nights in remodeling their new house before their move in. I saw James as hard-working as ever, dedicated to his wife and to the Lord with the same passion I had seen in him before I left. To me the idea hit me strange in a sense because this was my four-day pass away from the Army before deploying for good. For me this was a moment to relax and put work and duty on hold, and yet I was coming right back to people whose lives don't take breaks. In those moments I felt a little ashamed to present myself before friends and family-- here they were hard-working and engaged with life as ever and I was on vacation. Their life was my vacation. It's then that I felt that the every-day working American makes the same sacrifices Soldiers make overseas. In many ways, Soldiers are provided for, even when fighting in war, while the American people have to continue dealing with the same uncertainties of everyday life. Not that it's not tough being a Soldier, but every working American has challenges to face. Whether those challenges are life-threatening or life-testing, they are still challenges. Life doesn't go on hold just because of a four-day pass.

After our pizza we stopped by a coffee shop up the street. I took maybe three or four sips of my cappuccino, and just jokingly I asked Nicole, "So... what did you guys get me for my birthday?"

Then Nicole and Heather looked at each other, and Nicole said, "Actually, we're glad you asked because we have a surprise for you."

"What is it?"

"We're not going to tell you."

And Heather said, "And we're going to blindfold you so you don't know where we're going."

"You guys are messing with me, right? You're not serious."

"No really," Heather said. "We're going to put this over your eyes and take you somewhere." She pulled out a black headband and I sat back on the couch and smiled in disbelief.

"Where are you guys taking me? James you knew about this?"

James just sat quietly, kinda nodding along, not giving away anything.

"This is silly," I said. "You guys aren't serious."

So then by this point my mind is rambling in trying to figure out what the surprise present is. Heather tells me it's big enough that we'll have to put down the car seats.

"How am I supposed to take this to Iraq if it's so big?"

"You'll see."

Then somehow I got to thinking they were going to take me to the Steelers store 'cuz I'm a total addict, and I'm picturing everything that this present might be.

So finally Heather convinces me to wear the headband and they walk me out of the coffeeshop toward the car. By now I feel completely vulnerable, and at every step I fear I'll trip over a sidewalk or sudden steps. I crawl my way into the car and Heather takes left and right turns and I try to guess what we're stuffing into the back seat. "Is it a couch?" "Is it a poster?" "Is it a flat-screen tv?"

Then we park the car and Heather comes around opens the door and grabs me by the hand. By now I feel like a total old man unable to take two steps without using a cane or holding onto someone. Heather opens the door to the entrance, and I feel a rush of AC air blowing over me, and I hear just the tiny chatter of children. We're in a toy store, I think.

"Hey can I feel the present and try to guess what it is before you take off my blindfold?" I ask, but before I finish the sentence Heather pulls off the band and...

"SURPRISE!"

The room is filled with people. We're inside Azzeria, the pizza restaurant I used to work in, and from left to right is an entire panorama of faces and friends and family. I just stand there, mouth open in half-gasp. I froze and for ten or fifteen seconds I'm trying to process what's going on. There's no way all these people are here for me, I think. I loose all grip on intelligent thought and try to reach for something to say but all that comes out is, "Uhhhh..."

Before I can even take another breath and extend my incredibly witty remark, my mom walks forward with eyes half-teary and hugs me. I feel like she just saved me from my own stupidity, so I hug her tightly in thanks and relief.

We all celebrate and spend the evening together and the whole time I wonder, "How can all these people be here for me. How can it be that all these people love me so much? What have I done to deserve their support?"