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."


"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


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


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


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...


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?"

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Here's a few pics I've taken the past couple of days... Enjoy!


So yesterday was my birthday, but today feels more like it because I get to go home. Yesterday was still awesome though thanks to my unit. We formed up around 2000hrs and Maj. Spagel talked to us about our pass and told us to take care of our family. He said not to bring our military mentality home. The two worlds are different and there is a military way and a family way. At home, Heather is the commander in chief and we shouldn't expect to order people around or demand for the same type of structure we're now used to in the Army.

At the end of formation, the commander called Spc. Turner to post, and I was so happy all of a sudden. I knew it was going to happen for him. 1st Sgt. Speaks called attention to orders and Specialist Turner became Sergeant Turner. Now he has the stripes, and I think he deserves it. He's almost approaching 40 and I think it really relieved him making rank last night. He looked so joyous when he ran back to formation.

The thing about making rank, if you handle it right, is that you grow into respecing others more instead of less. Just in March when I made Staff Sgt. I suddenly felt like my priority was to recognize people's duties with a lot more appreciation. There was still that ugly sense of wanting to look around and see who I outrank now, but I feel like that's going away. There's also a burden to the rank but that's why the Army increases your pay. Suddenly you can't make excuses anymore. You're SUPPOSED to know what's going on, and it's your job to inform other Soldiers. As a Sergeant, you have to become somewhat of a nagging father to the specilaists and privates-- some of whom are ten years older than me or more. It's an odd feeling at times, and it's really jarring when I spend time to think about it. The commander and first sergeant don't treat me like a 22-year old... they treat me like a staff sergeant.

Well actually, now I'm 23 (yes, I know, big difference). After Turner made it back into formation, Major Spagel called us back to attentiona and everyone broke out into "Happy Birthday." I never thought it would mean so much to be sung Happy Birthday by a group of Soldiers, but it really felt awesome. Maybe I'm looking into it too much, but I felt like they appreciated me and, yes, that they had love for me. It's encouraging as a Soldier when you have that kind of support. I mean, these are the same guys who ran around on a Easter-egg hunt just a few Sundays ago.

So after they finished singing, they all lined up on two sides to have me run through the spanking tunnel. I even handed my Posh Paddle to 2nd Lt. Skindell to have the honor and privilege of whacking me a few good ones.

They even bought me a cake that read: "Happy Birthday Ninja Turtle" (the nickname is because I look like a turtle in my IBA... just look below for pics). The Major decorated it himself with the help of Lt. Glaubach and other leadership. I mean, who does that?

Except on the top right corner there was a little drawing made out of frosting that the Major claimed to be a gun.

"I really did try to draw a gun, but it didn't turn out right."

I'll let you figure out what it DID look like.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

On my 4-day break

So Thursday I get to be with my beautiful wife for a few days before taking off to Iraq. I can't wait to see her. We've taken so many roadtrips together in the past (Bristol Mountains, Canada, Orlando, Poconos) that it will be wonderful taking another road trip back home from Fort Dix. They say that the best view of Dix is the one in the rear-view mirror. I expect it to be true. Wednesday is my Birthday (April 2) and I'll get to celebrate it just a few days later with my family in Pittsburgh.

Here are the top things I'm looking forward to the most (in no perticular order):

Sharing a bed with my wife
Going to Sunday service at Providence where dedication to scripture is always solid
Going out to dinner with James and Nicole to celebrate my birthday, my promotion, and their new house
Having dinner at my parent's house where my mom will make tortellini with cream sauce, pluse we'll have mozzarella and prosciutto
Going down to the strip district with my wife and having a nice cappuccino
Enjoying a glass of wine with my wife
Eating cheesecake
Eating chocolate kinder eggs with my family
Eating anything that isn't an MRE for lunch
Sleeping in until 8am and not feel guilty about it
Recharging and relaxing before deploying to Iraq

POSH Paddle

I know it's a little tough to read it with this picture but the paddle says: "P.O.S.H. Warning! Don't do it!!!"

This is my POSH Paddle. 2nd Lt. Skindell bought me a ping-pong paddle for my birthday so that I can use it to lay down the law. Basically I get to whip out the paddle anytime anyone makes a comment in violation of POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harrassment). Unfortunately I can't hit anyone across the head with it-- that would be pretty satisfying.

It's a Gas!

Charocal face

This is a picture of my unit, the 354th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, after we came out of the gas chamber. The black stuff on our faces is a charcoal decontaminant. I rubbed it all over my face because the instructors said that if we didn't put enough we would have to go through again. No way I was going to let that happen.

The back row features: SFC Opet, 1SG Speaks, SSG Shell, SPC Crofoot, SPC Lopez, SFC Cornaby, SSG Emery, CPT Edwards (in the far background hidden), SPC Snyder, SPC Conrad, SSG Wright.
The front row features: SPC Turner, 1LT Glaubach (crouching), SSG Sauret (me), PFC Jaraviteri.

Missing from the pic: SGT West (he took the photo), 2LT Skindell, MAJ Spagel, PFC Goodwin

We ride in stealth mode

MOUT Training: Military Operation in Urban Terrain. Clearing rooms and taking names!

From left to right this is me, SFC Cornaby & SFC Opet. These old men got a little hop in their step when it comes to aiming their M16 and clearing room of bad guys.

Here I look like an angry turtle!