Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The final countdown

With only two days left in Iraq, my time at the CPA draws to a close. Yet despite my desire to return home to family and friends, I must admit that I feel somewhat melancholy about leaving Iraq and the people I've served with on this detail. During the short time we have spent here, I have experienced things that most people will never have the opportunity to see or do. I've dined on mutton and curry at the village hut of an Iraqi tribal chief, constructed of reeds and thatch. I've wandered the halls of the Presidential Palace in Baghdad and stood in front of the great crossed swords of Saddam's Victory Stadium. I've driven through the cities of Al Kut, As Samawa, An Nasiriyah, Al Amara and Al Basra, and seen the beautiful mosques and souks, or markets, that thrive in these cities. I've met military and civilian coalition members from Denmark, Great Britain, Italy, Holland, Wales, Ireland, and Japan. Each of these events have rewarded me in an intangible way that cannot be explained without experiencing it for yourself.

Certainly, there are many things I am glad to leave behind. Mortar attacks and nighttime explosions top the list, as do roadside IED's, car bombs, and the constant threat of attack against coalition personnel. The need to travel in armored vehicles, wearing 45 lbs of body armor and ammunition gets old very quickly. The inability to stop your car and walk around town without being injured of killed is a very strong factor influencing our desire to go home for awhile.

Yet, I leave Iraq having also seen many positive changes occur since my arrival. New businesses are opening and many Iraqi's are learning the value of capitalism. The infrastructure of the city is improving daily, with new water and sewage plants, electrical stations, and schools. Sanitation workers are slowly removing twelve years worth of garbage from neighborhoods affected by the decade-long embargo against Iraq. Children are returning to school and roadways are being repaired after years of neglect. Despite the negative portrayal of events by our media, a greater percentage of positive things are occurring daily in the cities and countryside than what one is led to believe. The media routinely reports negative events and rarely portrays the accomplishments taking place in Iraq on a daily basis.

Conversely, I have also seen a stalemate in the progress of security for the Iraqi people and the promise of self-government which is truly independent of Western rule. The prospective Iraqi election and dissolution of the coalition appears less likely to happen by July 1st than it did 60, or even 30, days ago. Coalition troops continue to battle extremists in the cities of Fallujah, Najaf, and Amara. Politicians continue to argue the future of Iraq, the makeup of it's government, and the role of religion in the future of this country. In my opinion, coalition leaders do not fully understand the influence of Islam and the stark difference between the western and Arab cultures. The western ways of conducting business and our handling of inter-personal relationships differ from that of the Arabs as much as it did for the early pioneers and Native Americans in the 19th century. Until the Iraqi's can govern themselves and provide security for their own people, U.S. servicemembers and other coalition forces will continue to be looked upon as an occupying force by the Arab world.

My tour in Iraq has spanned the spectrum of human emotions. Whereas I have felt mostly at ease throughout this tour, I have also experienced moments of intense fear and helplessness, greater than I could ever imagine. One quickly come to terms with their own mortality when nearby rocket or mortar explosions jar them awake at night.

Much like the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, my time spent in Iraq has left me with an renewed sense of patriotism for my country and my flag. More personally, I come away from this experience with a greater appreciation for my wife, my family, and my friends. We are truly blessed to be Americans and to have family and friends whom we can turn to it time of need. I wish nothing less than success to the members of the coalition as it continues it's progress in Iraq. My time here, however, has ended. It has been a fascinating trip.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Yankee One!

Living and working within a British compound has been a very interesting experience. Although we share a common language and heritage, the British ways of conducting business are far different than that practiced by most of the Americans living within the CPA. It seems the more we try to understand each other, the less we find we have in common.

Take the Ambassador’s security manager, for instance. The security manager is responsible for developing and implementing a security plan for the CPA, which includes the construction of bomb shelters, the placement of barrier walls and sandbags throughout the CPA, and the refinement of perimeter security around the compound. Completely understandable duties considering the environment within which we work. However, in the British mind, those mundane tasks are secondary in nature. Our security manager focuses his efforts on more important, self-appointed duties, and I quote his recent remarks....

1. Chow Hall Monitor – please do not take food nor drink from the dining facility
2. Bathroom Cop - please maintain a tidy appearance in the loo, as women also enjoy the use of these facilities
3. Laundry Police – Your laundry may not be hung from lines beside your lodging, for it may attract flies or other vermin. Please keep all laundry within your quarters.

More frustrating, however, is the overwhelming attitude amongst the British civilian and military staffs that everything should be handled in a politically sensitive nature, as not to offend our Arab hosts (yes, the British do refer to the Iraqi’s as our hosts, although I have yet to be offered a beer or cocktail weenie). For instance, my team had the opportunity to obtain a trained bomb dog for use during the Ambassador’s tenure at the CPA. A bomb dog would have been extremely helpful when checking our vehicles for improvised explosive devices (IED’s) or to ensure explosives aren’t hidden at the various locations to which we escort the Ambassador. However, the British staffers advised us that “Arabs do not like dogs and believe they are filthy creatures. Hence, their presence might risk offending our hosts, and we shall not cause such issue.”

A favorite term of our British counterparts is “celebratory fireworks.” Occasionally, the sound of automatic gunfire will interrupt our sleep. Yet, ask a member of the British staff what occurred the next morning and you will invariably get the response, “probably just celebratory fireworks”. It seems the British have a deep-rooted fear of admitting that bullets are actually being fired at the CPA at 2:00 a.m., or that some of the local populace really doesn’t want us around. Perhaps the 8 mortar rounds launched against our compound over the last 2 evenings were actually kids playing with firecrackers. Extremely large, loud and powerful firecrackers, but firecrackers nonetheless.

The Brits also seem afraid to stand their ground and face adversity, much like British actor Hugh Grant has done in all of the chick-flick movies he has starred. Last week, approximately 1000 followers of the radical Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr swarmed the city of Basra and seized the governor’s building in the center of town. This action followed a day of battles between the militia and U.S. led forces elsewhere in Iraq, in which officials said ten U.S. troops and almost 100 Iraqi’s were killed. The Sadr supporters were demanding the release of a Sadr aide arrested by U.S. forces and the lifting of a U.S. ban placed on Sadr’s newspaper. Still, nearly a week after its seizure, the Basra governate remains in the hands of the Sadr militants. The group has sent word that they will leave the governor’s building when the coalition departs Basra. The surprising part is the British are openly permitting the situation to remain this way. Rumor has it that Brit leadership has entered into negotiations with local clerics and allegedly agreed to lobby for the reduction or removal of coalition forces from Basra if order is restored to the governate. The truth and extent of this rumor remain to be seen.

Despite our similar jobs, even the British protection teams enjoy a different outlook from the one I share with my teammates. As a member of the Ambassador’s close protection team, I wear body armor. I also carry a pistol, a carbine, and 300 rounds of ammunition conspicuously exposed when I am in public. In the team’s opinion, deterrence is our best protection! Deterrence works wonders. Yet, we are labeled “cowboys” by the private security contractors (British) who share similar duties at the CPA. Their rules forbid them to expose weapons or carry their rifles outside of their vehicles. In fact, in an attempt to poke fun at our American methods of operation, the British Communications Office changed our radio call-sign. Previously, all security units in Basra were referred to as Golf 1, Golf 2, Golf 3, etc. In a weak attempt at embarrassing us, we were ceremoniously renamed “Yankee 1”. Since no other “Yankees” conduct protective services in southern Iraq, we now own a unique moniker which has gotten more than its share of positive comments during our previous travels to Nasiriyah and Baghdad.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Where are the reporters?

Over the last couple of weeks, the media has reported a rise in violence occurring in Iraq, mostly within the northern cities of Baghdad and Fallujah. For those of you who follow the headlines from Iraq, you may recall the recent deaths of 5 soldiers killed on March 31 when the armored personnel carrier they were riding in drove over an anti-tank mine. The mine exploded, destroying the APC and killing all of it's occupants. This tragedy was compounded when four civilian contractors from the North Carolina firm Blackwater were attacked and killed, with angry mobs subsequently mutilating their bodies and hanging the corpses from a bridge. Pictures of their charred remains were splashed across the front pages of national and international newspapers, while television stations aired footage taken from personal video cameras. Unfortunately, tragedies like these fuel the media frenzy by providing juicy stories for folks at home who, for the most part, have no connection to Iraq and most likely cannot even locate Iraq on a map. What purpose is served when the average citizen reads only of violence and bloodshed? As pointed out by a friend of mine serving with the Marine Corps Reserve in Baghdad, the media rarely reports anything positive from Iraq. They (the media) seem to revel in stories that portray a "negative, defeatist viewpoint." How many dead this time? How many injured? Are we reverting to the days when a body-count dictates whether we continue to pursue freedom and basic human rights for a country that has suffered under years of tyrannical leadership?

When was the last time you read of something positive being accomplished in Iraq? Hard to recall, isn't it? Where are the stories of the medical facilities being built where no medical facility previously existed? How about the construction of schools for children who have never owned a book? Over the past couple months, I've seen children playing in in the streets of Basra who've never touched a real toy. They play with rusty cans, empty boxes or a car tires they've found in heaping piles of garbage that dot the city. How about a story on the introduction of sanitation services in a city that hasn't seen a single collection of garbage in 12 years? Or a story about the toys donated by American charities to the local "Save the Children" facility in Basra?

Since my arrival, I've seen some remarkable changes occurring throughout the southern region of Iraq. Sure, the country is far from beautiful. However, every time we return to Al Nasiriyah, or Al Samawa or any of the other small towns we've traveled, I see improvements in the infrastructure of this country which never before existed. Under Saddam's rule, the majority of national funds were funneled to party officials in Baghdad and Tikrit, or other Sunni strongholds. Most Shiite dominated areas, such as Basra, suffered as a result and never received funding for basic services that we take for granted, such as water, electricity or medical services. Imagine living your entire life in a squalid adobe home, complete with dirt floors but no roof. Imagine never having plumbing or running water, and gathering all of your drinking water from the nearest rain puddle. These are the conditions that the coalition is attempting to change.

I'd like to see stories that equally portray the coalition's military successes alongside their failures. Yes, 5 soldiers were killed in Fallujah, but so were 18 bad guys who would have done anything to impede our progress. Multiple weapons caches were seized and destroyed, which prevents those weapons from ever being used to hurt another soldier or innocent Iraqi civilian. While millions live in Iraq, only hundreds participate in the violence you see in the media. Most Iraqi's want only two things - security and income. It doesn't matter who delivers it; America, Britain, or any other country. Give the population the security they need to earn the income they desire and success will dominate over failure.

Ensuring the success of this mission isn't easy. We still face incredible challenges, and unfortunately, more injuries and deaths of American citizens will occur. The few who resist the coalition will make it difficult, but not impossible. For the most part, the Iraqi's I've spoken with understand the need for a coalition presence until Iraq is strong enough to take care of itself. They may not like it, but they understand the need for our presence and what we are trying to accomplish.

Everyone who serves in Iraq, be they military or civilian, does so on a voluntary basis. The draft ended long ago, and enlisting servicemembers understand that in today's world, a servicemember's duty is a dangerous job that will take them to dangerous places. Whether we are here out of our sense of duty, the extra money or the pursuit of adventure, all know and accept the risks associated with being in such a place. Families at home hate it. However, for those of us who've seen some of the real progress made, the risk is worth being part of it all. I'd like to think that someday I'll be able to return to Iraq and see a country resembling Kuwait, Bahrain or even Dubai.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

A Kuwaiti Vacation

Recently, the Ambassador returned to England on a 10-day business trip, leaving my team "stranded" in Kuwait City during his absence. Although our team could have returned to the CPA, the comfort of a hotel room and the guarantee of gunshot-free nights convinced us to spend our time in Kuwait, vice returning to Iraq. The worst day in Kuwait is better than the best day in Iraq, hands down!

Our time spent in Kuwait was quite interesting and was a distinct contrast to our experiences in Iraq. Although these two bordering countries share a common religion and language, very little else in either country resembles that of the other. The drive from the Iraqi border to Kuwait City takes you over smartly paved city streets and 4 lane highways, complete with American styled traffic signs, mileage posts, and traffic lights. Local Kuwaiti's flaunt their wealth in this oil rich country in many ways. The roads are jammed with all brands of luxury automobiles, to include Jaguar, BMW, and Mercedes, as well as an occasional Ferrari or Lamborghini. The buildings of Kuwait City are mostly modern, beautiful structures with large windows, marble floors, and decorative lighting inside and out. Modern and traditional mosques dot the cityscape, lending a distinctive Middle Eastern flair to the city.

Subsequent to the Iraqi invasion of 1990, Kuwait City was reborn in the image of many other modern, western cities across the globe. The shoreline is dotted with uniquely American restaurants like Fuddruckers, Applebee's, and Chili's. Shopping malls, complete with food courts, record stores, and fashion designer boutiques occupy valued real estate along the coast. Yet, even as the city appears to model itself after modern democratic society, Muslim values still dominate daily Kuwaiti life. A large percentage of Kuwaiti men still prefer wearing the traditional robes and headdresses of the Islamic devout, while many Kuwaiti women remain hidden behind veils and flowing black robes. The contrasting mixture of business suits and robes, western chic clothing and black veils is a constant reminder of the dominating aspect of religion within the Middle East.

One cannot spend any time in Kuwait without also noticing the huge disparity between the minority Kuwaiti population and the majority non-Kuwaiti residents who make up the remainder of the country's inhabitants. Known as third country nationals or TCN's, these individuals provide over 80% of the labor force in Kuwait. Although residents of Kuwait, TCN's are mostly relegated to menial labor and retail jobs and will never hold occupations of value within the Kuwaiti society. Only true Kuwaiti's can be found working among the various ministries of the Kuwaiti government, and are guaranteed a government job or valued occupation based solely on their birthright as a Kuwaiti citizens. Further, the Kuwaiti government provides a stipend to all Kuwaiti citizens for housing and education, while providing no such assistance to TCN's. As such, TCN's are looked upon with disdain by most true Kuwaiti's, who arrogantly believe they are better than the TCN's. It is not uncommon to see a Kuwaiti berate a TCN for the most minor infraction, treating them more like slaves than human beings. Although many TCN's have become successful small business owners, most are hourly wage earners, residing in small, slum-like apartments or group housing similar to the tenement buildings of Washington, D.C. and Chicago.

One major distinction between Kuwait and other western nations is the lack of entertainment establishments and bars that serve alcoholic beverages. Despite the initial appearance of a modern society with American values, the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages is still punishable by imprisonment in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti newspaper routinely reports the arrest of people who've violated the strict laws banning alcohol and it's consumption. Pornography is also banned in Kuwait. The sale of magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse, as well as a number of non-pornographic magazines, to include Maxim and FHM, is strictly prohibited. Very little tolerance is granted the American appetite for such reading material. A sentence of several years in a Kuwaiti jail awaits anyone caught distributing pornographic magazines or movies.

In less than three hours, our return trip to Iraq will take us from a modern city steeped in traditional Islamic values to a primitive society filled with intolerance and violence. The landscape will change from modern buildings and manicured lawns, to that of dirt roads, mud houses, and war damaged buildings. The roadways of Kuwait, paved and marked with traffic signs, will turn into unmarked roadways, many of which still bear the scars of explosions and tank tracks from coalition vehicles. The threat of IED’s will alter our awareness of our surroundings the second we cross the border. Our trust in the Kuwaiti Police and Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials will be replaced with our mistrust of the Iraqi Police, who have been known to empty their AK-47 magazines at passing coalition vehicles. The coalition has a long struggle ahead of them, despite the religious similarities between Iraq and Kuwait. Beyond religion, the countries are as different as night and day.

The short time I have spent in Kuwait and Iraq serves to remind me that there is truly no society as wonderful to live in as that of the United States of America. At home, women do not worry about having acid being thrown in their faces for failing to wear veils, like the recent attacks against women in Basra and Baghdad. Men are free to worship the religion of their choice. US Citizens and lawful permanent residents share similar occupations in business and industry. Only in America can one rise from pauper to politician; assemble and congregate for any manner or means of religious belief; and speak freely of their opinions and beliefs, be they for or against the standing laws of our government. It should be mandatory for all U.S. citizens, particularly our liberal activists, to spend a month abroad in the Middle East, on the African continent, or in southwest Asia. Perhaps then would they realize the greatness of our society and how fortunate we all are to live and work in a country that allows all of us the freedoms we take for granted on a daily basis.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Faces of the CPA

Within the Basra CPA, there are a variety of people assigned to different jobs and functions. The majority of the CPA personnel are British, to include the Ambassador and his staff. However, a multitude of other nationalities can be found throughout the CPA. There's a contingent of troops from Nepal and contractors from Fiji who provide the majority of our perimeter security. These folks man our gates and watchtowers 24 hrs a day, alongside British soldiers and Iraqi Police (IP) counterparts. There are a dozen or more Dutch and Finnish Police Officers who conduct basic law enforcement and human rights training at the Al Zubayr Police Academy in Basra during the day. They too return to sleep behind the walls of safety at the CPA nightly. Small groups of Italian soldiers and Caribinieri (Italian National Police) make their way through our chow hall on a regular basis while conducting business with the CPA staff. A further look would discover folks from Romania, Scotland, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, all here to support the efforts of the coalition provisional authority.

As you wander the makeshift office spaces among the trailers scattered about the CPA, you will encounter dozens of American contractors from Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), who provide the majority of our logistics support, from fuel to construction. The KBR staff has a varied background. Many are retired service members seeking the travel and excitement once offered through their military service. Others are young folks from the Texas who signed on with KBR for the tax-free cash advantages of serving overseas. Many just wanted to do their part for the coalition without having to join the military.

In addition to coalition personnel, a number of local Iraqi's do their part to assist in the daily operations of the CPA. They arrive daily before 7 a.m., and conduct many of the more menial tasks at the CPA, from grounds keeping to laundry service. There is the Iraqi barber who cuts our hair for free. A two or three dollar tip is common practice, though some of our cheaper residents have actually stiffed him without a tip. During my last visit, I asked him how long he had been cutting hair. In broken English, the barber replied he had been cutting his children's hair for years, but that he was actually an engineer by trade. Prior to the Gulf war, he was charged with building highway bridges and roadways in Iraq. However, he had not been able to return to his engineering job following the embargo and now holds three different jobs to support his family.

Two Iraqi sisters used to work in our laundry room, which is nothing more than a CONEX box, or metal shipping container similar to those found perched atop large merchant ships. Their CONEX box had been fitted with an air conditioner recently to keep the box cool during the stifling heat of summer. The sisters, Lika'a and Shaimaa, had worked at the CPA for over a year and were paid approximately $350.00 a month by KBR, a handsome salary for most Iraqi's these days. Every morning, Lika'a and Shaimaa would show up at the CPA by taxi before many of us were awake, on the job no later than 7 a.m. Neither Laika’a nor Shaimaa would leave their post before 7 p.m., at which time the laundry closes for the evening. Unlike most of the Iraqi's who work at the CPA, both Laika'a and Shaimaa spoke fluent, though accented, English. Apparently educated and well spoken, Laika'a and Shaimaa worked 12-hour days in a CONEX box because there are few jobs in Iraq available to educated young women.

On Wednesday evening, Laika'a and Shaimaa were murdered on their way home. According to information we've received, unknown gunmen stopped their taxi and opened fire on them, shooting them each over ten times. These girls were only teenagers, and their only "crime" was befriending American's inside the CPA compound. Everyone here was affected by their deaths in one way or another. Having spoken with Shaimaa just 3 hours earlier, this is the first event that has truly gotten to me since being here. A sense of sadness hangs over the CPA like a fog.

While we expect a soldier to be injured or killed by a roadside bomb or an attack against a coalition convoy, we rarely stop to think of the other lives affected by the violence in this country. For the life of me, I will never understand a people who preach violence against all who don't believe, act, or behave the way these mindless Islamic fanatics do. Murder for associating with westerners, death to the infidels! All in the name of Allah! I just don't get it.

Monday, April 05, 2004

The Road to Baghdad

We've just returned from the longest trip of our journey so far - a road trip to Baghdad and back. The trip was precipitated by a meeting of all of the regional coalition provisional authority (CPA) Ambassadors at the former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein. Our drive to Baghdad was quite interesting. As the team navigator, I chose a route that weaved through or around several small towns and cities, to include Al Amara, Al Kut, and Al Ghurub. Unlike the roads and highways in the U.S., there are no road signs or mileage markers along our routes of travel. All travel must be done the old fashioned way - maps and terrain orientation. Although this seems a relatively simple task, it is quite a different experience in Iraq. At home, we can look at the exit sign outside of our car window to confirm we’ve arrived at a certain location. We can even stop at a 7-11 for directions! Unfortunately, there are no 7-11’s in Iraq, and no exit signs either. An unplanned stop at an unknown location could be your last. Every bend in the road, every water tower, and every power cable tower must be visually sighted and found on the map in order to keep from easily getting lost in an unfamiliar town or area, many of which are still hostile toward western occupiers.

The roadways are a patchwork of paved highways, asphalt routes similar to our state routes, and dirt roads. Making the travel more difficult is the mixture of traffic found using these roadways - trucks, passenger cars, donkey carts, military convoys and horse drawn wagons. To fuel their vehicles, local Iraqi's lucky enough to own cars often must travel to a neighboring town or city to obtain their petrol, since working gasoline stations are a rare commodity outside of the major cities. None of the coalition vehicles risk stopping at an Iraqi gasoline station for fear of attack. All of our vehicles are topped off at the CPA before we travel, with refueling available at various coalition fuel points scattered throughout the country. Most fuel points consist of several bulk fuel tankers, manned by some unfortunate reservist from Arkansas or Ohio, whose only job is to make sure coalition convoys aren't stranded on their long journeys north or south. Five gallon gas cans are a staple in every vehicle packing list, and ours were used twice during this journey.

After 8 hours of driving, we arrived in Baghdad to witness M-1 tanks cruising the roadways and U.S. Army Bradley fighting vehicles stationed alongside roadway checkpoints. Baghdad is a huge city, much like driving through any major metropolitan U.S. city. From the vista of a raised highway, you see what appears similar in any U.S. cityscape - bridges; buildings; traffic; and all sorts of movement associated with seeing a city from afar. However, upon closer inspection, you also see sites unfamiliar at home. Painted towers of mosques peek out all around you. The majority of buildings are dirty and in disrepair. They all appear a sandy desert color and haven't received any maintenance or care in years. Many of the smaller buildings are nothing more than adobe or mud brick. Highway light poles and guard rails lie in twisted heaps from damage caused 12 years ago during Operation Desert Storm, and remain where they fell. Rusted cars dot the roadways, while strands of barbed wire, lines of sandbags, and military vehicles come into view every mile. Although Baghdad was once a modern city, it has obviously suffered from months of warfare and the decade-long embargo imposed against it.

Our arrival into the “green zone” was a welcome relief. The “green zone” is the area surrounding the former presidential palace, several square miles large. The zone is cordoned off by a vast array of military vehicles, barriers, concertina wire and armed soldiers and Marines. Although the “green zone” is considered a secure area, it still suffers from random missile and mortar attacks on a weekly basis. A missile was successfully fired into the “green zone” the day before our arrival, reminding us that there really is no such thing as a secure zone.

The presidential palace itself is now the headquarters for the coalition. All sorts of military and civilian VIP’s roam the hallways, volleying for their chance to meet with Coalition Administrator Paul Bremer or his staff. A bustling collection of military personnel of all ranks, services, and countries scurry through the corridors of the palace, and have utilized every nook and cranny for ad-hoc offices and operations centers. Saddam’s former bedrooms now provide working spaces for military staff, while interior rooms adorned with paintings of Saddam fighting the “mother of all battles” are now filled with bunk beds and cots for permanent personnel.

I never imagined I would be standing on the lawn of the presidential palace in Baghdad, or sitting in the grand foyer, playing a game of spades with my teammates. Being at the palace was a surreal experience. Just a little over a year ago, Saddam himself was making grandiose threats against President Bush and the United States military in those very halls, scheming with his staff on how to best avoid another war. Much like my visits to the White House or the State Department, I was in awe of my surroundings, fortunate to have a job which allows me the opportunity to see such places.

The night was filled with sounds heard much less often in Basra. Sleep was interrupted by several explosions and numerous bursts of automatic gunfire throughout the night. However, it was easy to fall back asleep after having driven 8 hours in an alert status. The following morning, we ate breakfast in a large banquet room which now serves as one of the many coalition chow-halls found in the “green zone.” Prior to departing the “green zone,” our team took the opportunity to visit Saddam’s victory stadium, with it’s huge crossed swords marking the entrance of the stadium. Saddam used this stadium to view his military forces on parade, and had a throne of sorts built in the center of the stadium to view the parades. Naturally, each of us took a moment to stand at the edge of Saddam’s pulpit and view our teammates below, pretending to give some superb oratory. Just another moment of being in awe at what we were witnessing. A photo of the the stadium entrance is attached to this e-mail.

Prior to departing Baghdad, the team made a brief stop at the Baghdad International Airport, which lies several miles outside the “green zone.” The airport, or BIAP, houses another vast collection of military units and personnel. Vacant commercial aircraft lie dormant on the runways, damaged from gunfire or scavengers searching for parts. Still bearing paint saying “Iraqi Airlines”, the jetliners haven’t moved in years.

My visit to the BIAP was highlighted by a brief visit with my twin sister, Kathy, who was activated with the Air National Guard last year. An Air Force Major, Kathy has been at the BIAP since November and is due to return to the States very shortly. Although our visit was brief, it gave us the opportunity to swap a few stories and gather updates about each other and our family. Upon her departure from Iraq, Kathy will be returning to Louisville, KY to her husband Mark, an Air Force veteran, and their 2 children. Neither Kathy nor I ever dreamed we’d be visiting each other in Iraq!

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Visits around the AOR

I've just returned from a 2 day trip throughout the southern Coalition Provisional Authority region (CPA South). As I've probably mentioned earlier, CPA South is one of 6 geographical regions created at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The overall Coalition is currently administered by Mr. Paul Bremer, under the direction of President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld. Of the six regions within the coalition, CPA South controls all military forces operating in Southern Iraq, which includes a dozen different countries, such as England, Romania, Japan, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, and Korea, to name a few. Interestingly, there are very few American forces operating in the region. With the exception of my team, the CPA compound in Basra is almost entirely staffed by British and Fijian soldiers. We also have quite a few local Iraqi's employed as day laborers which always creates a little bit of tension when we consider the security of the compound.

CPA South is controlled by a career British Diplomat, Mr. Patrick Nixon, who was a direct appointee of Bremer, Rumsfeld and Pres. Bush. The other 5 administrators are also career diplomats, though most are American. Each administrator, or Ambassador, will eventually turn over his duties to newly elected Iraqi Governors, if and when the Iraqi elections finally take place.

It is the duty of my team to provide protective support to Ambassador Nixon throughout his tenure as the CPA South Administrator. While in the CPA compound, we rarely interact with the Ambassador unless there is some apparent threat, such as a mortar attack or some other reason to hustle him into a bunker for safety. However, the Ambassador will not make any trips out of the CPA without having my team in tow. Perhaps he enjoys the extra attention, particularly when he's seen walking through town with his security entourage. However, I can only imagine the constant presence of his ever-suspicious security team must become tiresome, particularly in some of the crowded areas we walk through during his face to face meetings with Iraqi governing councils or local religious leaders.

Our trip throughout CPA South took us back to the familiar towns of Al Nasiriyah and As Samawa. What made our trip different was the weather. A cold front had swept in from the North, bringing with it those famed sand storms you hear of and see in movie classics starring Lawrence Olivier. Although our morning started with a dusty haze in the air, by noon, our visibility had lowered to approximately 100 feet and we still had several hours before reaching our destination. The sand and dust had become so thick that you could stare directly at the sun, similar to the way you look might gaze at the moon at night.

After reaching the CPA at As Samawa, we were informed that the Ambassador would be having tea with the local Iraqi Governor of As Samawa at his "secure" compound. Having been informed of a recent rocket and small arms attack against U.S. General Abizaid, commander of CENTCOM, that had occurred 2 days earlier in another "secure" compound, we were a little hesitant to trust the security provided by our Iraqi hosts. As we reached our destination, my entire team dismounted our vehicles and hastily posted a 180 degree defense around the front of the palace. Then, out of nowhere, a dumpy white guy approaches on foot and asks in English if I could answer some questions about the newly arrived Japanese forces in the city. It turns out he's a reporter for the LA Times who was sent to Iraq to cover the 1st deployment of Japanese forces since W.W.II. Amazing who you meet in such far-away places.

On our trip back to Basra, the weather started cooperating and cleared a bit for the drive. Driving the armored SUV's is a unique experience at 100 mph. Each vehicle is built with special armor to withstand small arms attacks and varying levels of explosions. The package creates a very heavy vehicle, which rides very smoothly at high speed. Believe it or not, the highways throughout the region closely resemble interstate highways in America, complete with rest stops lined with umbrella shaded picnic tables, though the tables haven't fared too well from the war and the weather. However, there is no such thing as a gas station or 7-11 to pull off and visit. You can literally drive 100 miles and see nothing but highway, rusted tanks, sheep and desert.

We headed northeast for a small town named Suq ash al Huq, which I dare say is even dirtier and nastier than any other locations I've previously reported. We were told the city was prone to criminal violence and that we could expect to have rocks thrown at our vehicles or other acts of protest against our visit. That's a great way to start a ride. Although we asked ourselves why such a visit would occur, we already knew that the Ambassador was scheduled to meet the local Iraqi governing council to discuss the early stages of the CPA's involvement in the financing and rebuilding of the town, which had also suffered battle damage during the coalition advance.

While waiting for the Ambassador to finish his meeting, I was surrounded by a group of young street children, most dressed in dirty, unkempt clothing, some with no shoes. Despite their appearance, all of them smiled and appeared excited to interact with someone so different from anyone they had ever met. Having only experienced unsmiling British and Dutch military patrols passing by in their military vehicles, the sight of eight oddly dressed "americani's" carrying fancy guns and wearing special gear and clothing was something the children considered fantastic. Three well dressed children approached us, schoo-ing the other children away, and spoke directly to one of my teammates in perfect, yet accented english. The children were Aussies! The sons of an Iraqi father and Australian mother, they had come to Iraq with their parents 6 months earlier. The children warned us that all of the robed men in town carry concealed firearms underneath their gowns and that we should be careful. However, the children also remarked that the entire town hated Saddam Hussein for having destroyed the town following Desert Storm and that most townsfolk liked Americans. Sometimes you never know who you'll befriend in far-away places.

Our return to CPA Basra was once again uneventful. Although we passed a few individuals armed with AK-47's, none were foolish enough to raise them or point them our way. Most armed men are associated with the newly formed Iraqi Police, though many individuals still carry their weapons outside of their homes despite the ban by the Coalition. Fortunately, few have ever received marksmanship training and even fewer can actually hit something they aim at. Most of the former Regime soldiers were provided weapons without training and utilized the "spray and pray" method of firing their weapons. Sometimes we worry that we are more likely to get hit by a stray bullet fired during a wedding procession than we are by a possible attack from insurgents.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Mundane days

Over the past couple days, our pace has slowed considerably. The Ambassador has made only a couple of recent ventures out of town, thus leaving the team to find other avenues of entertainment. Life in the compound can be pretty simple - eat, work out, sleep, eat some more, and sleep again. The daily grind can become quite tedious and monotonous when the team is static. Fortunately, several of the team members brought portable DVD/CD players which have allowed us to have "movie nights" when we are not away on travel. Comedies and police dramas are the usual routine, and all that is missing is the pizza and beer.

Our compound spans 50 acres and is divided between British regular military forces and civilians who've signed on for a variety of jobs available with the coalition. The compound infrastructure is maintained by KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root), a contracting firm that operates in all of the top vacation spots of the world - Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, Liberia, and Iraq, to name a few. The contractors are paid quite well. Although it might not pay much by American standards to work in the laundry, a lucritive assignment such as private security nets the contractors up to $500.00 a day in salary. There is certainly no shortage of contractors who want to work in the various CPA's throughout Iraq.

Last Wednesday, our team escaped the compound to make a short trip to the port of Um Qasar, a small town located close to the Kuwaiti Border. Um Qasar was one of the first towns to experience the northern push of coalition troops during Op. Iraqi Freedom and has become the primary seaport for goods entering the southern region of Iraq. As part of the planning stages of any movement outside of the CPA, my team conducts an "advance", which was hindered on Tuesday by the discovery of an IED, or improvised explosive device (military speak for bomb) right in the middle of our route. Fortunately, the Brits sent an EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) team to disarm the device and make the route clear for coalition vehicles. It just goes to show that not everyone in the southern region has accepted the coalition's peace efforts. Most of the devices, we believe, are probably coming in from elsewhere and are not made locally in Basra.

Our trip to Um Qasar also included the use of a special vehicle we affectionately refer to as the "Death Star". If you can imagine a large, black SUV bristling with antennae and sprouting all shapes and sizes of rods and orbs from it's roof, you've got a good mental picture of the "Death Star." The "Death Star" allows us to jam a wide spectrum electronic frequencies within a certain distance of the convoy. When operating, it also disables AM/FM radios, walkie talkies, and personal cell phones, something we'd all love to use back at home during morning rush hour. It was quite amusing to watch a local Iraqi punching his car radio after losing his favorite Islamic radio station as we passed. We had a little fun with one particular vehicle filled with US Army staff officers who were stopped in front of us at NAVSTAR , a coalition refuel and arming station at the Kuwaiti Border. It appeared that several of the officers were attempting to make cell phone calls while the junior man got stuck pumping gas. Of course, we always test the "Death Star's" equipment before hitting the open road. It just so happened that our testing fell in direct synchronization with each of the officer's attempts to make their telephone calls and provided quite a laugh for my teammates whenever the officers gave up in disgust with their dialing efforts.

We've only got one movement scheduled for today, hence most of our day will be at the CPA. There is a mosque located on the eastern, outer edge of our compound that transmits the daily "call to prayer" 5 times a day for the local populace. Over the last 3 days, however, the local muslim clerics have been reciting in chant and song the entire Koran. As typical of all Islamic mosques, the tower is outfitted with loudspeakers so that prayer can be heard by those of faith many blocks away. With the loudspeakers situated approximately 500 feet from our compound perimeter, the 16 hour sing-song of the Koran has started to frazzle even the most pious of the CPA inhabitants. The clerics have allowed an 8 hour window of silence in the evening, which was shattered by the sounds of automatic gunfire this morning at 3 a.m. You can't have this much fun in Washington, D.C.! Thankfully we'll be back to just 5 prayers a day tomorrow.

Saturday, March 06, 2004


Recent events in town have somewhat altered our daily routine. Since the 24th of February, the local population has been celebrating Ashura, an Islamic holiday celebrated annually during the first month of the Islamic year. For you non-Muslims, Ashura commemorates the death of Husain, the leader of a small band of martyrs who were killed in 680 AD, and is a time of fasting, reflection and meditation. According to tradition, Ashura participants celebrate for 7-10 days and participate in public self-flagellation and whippings, reenacting the martyrdom of Husain and his fallen soldiers. These reenactments are practiced by dozens of men at a time, with the bloody results visible to all who witness the gathering. Groups of Ashura participants have been seen congregating throughout many of the local neighborhoods or marching thru traffic with red, green and black flags held high. Although we have not been able to find out the meaning of the green and black flags, it was interesting to find out that the red flags of Ashura “should be kept flying as a sign of the emergence of the day in which there will be a retaliatory measure on behalf of the oppressed against the tyrant.” Perhaps non-Muslims? The groups can be as small as a dozen or can surge upwards of a hundred or more participants. Try to imagine 30 or 40 men marching with military precision, whipping themselves with “cat-o-nine tails” and bleeding profusely. To view the tradition is quite an experience!

Although Ashura is a celebratory Muslim holiday, outsiders (particularly westerners) are warned to steer clear of the celebrants, who have been known to attack westerners lingering too close to the gatherings. Written warnings have been passed to all CPA staff urging us to avoid any provocation of Ashura groups, if possible. A number of our CPA vehicles have had to make last minute U-turns for fear of being surrounded by Ashura participants.

Late last evening, my team accidentally confronted an "after dark" Ashura celebration in the Basra village area of As Sarraji. We were returning from a late ending mission, which we normally avoid due to the increased danger of traveling after dark. During our ride back to the CPA, we turned down a dark street and immediately drove into the path of approximately 100 Ashura participants, dressed in black and in the midst of full celebration. Locally garrisoned British troops were busy with other duties and unable to station a blockade on our particular route of travel. Thankfully, our 4WD vehicles have enough ground clearance to easily cross small curbs or medians, which is one of the recommended actions to avoid confrontation. A quick U-turn over the concrete median proved to be the best defense against potential stone throwing or other unpleasant reactions.

In conjunction with Ashura, we have experienced a dramatic spike in the number of IED's, or improvised explosive devices, found in town and along our routes of travel. Early this morning, my team drove a “secure” route south of the CPA. Shortly afterward, a second security team from the CPA departed the compound on the same route and was struck by the effects of an IED that exploded as the vehicles drove past. Luckily, the IED exploded just as the first vehicle passed by and immediately before the second vehicle crossed the primary path of the explosion. No one was injured, but the security vehicle has seen the end of its duty in Basra. You can see the effects of IED shrapnel against the thin sheet metal skin of an SUV in the picture I’ve included from this morning’s blast. None of the shrapnel penetrated the armored interior of the vehicle, and all of its occupants escaped without injury. FYI - the vehicle leader was on his 2nd day at work! Hopefully, my team will continue to avoid such incidents based on our use of additional countermeasures against such attacks. Further, our vehicles have better armored protection than the one affected this morning.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Valentines Day

It is 11pm on the 12th of February. I've just realized Valentines Day is in another 2 days and that I don’t have any way of sending my wife a card or flowers. I think she’ll understand, considering the circumstances. For those of you who do not already know, Andrea is also deployed in support of a separate NCIS mission in Kuwait City, Kuwait. She recently arrived and sent me an email stating she is residing in a comfortable apartment rented by NCIS for those agents supporting "Team Kuwait." She has maid service and a satellite TV, but won't have much time to enjoy it with all of the work ahead of her. There are a variety of missions Andrea will be conducting in the next 90 days that will certainly be considered a "once in a lifetime experience."

While it is unlikely Andrea will make it very far into Iraq, there is a much higher likelihood that I may get a chance to see her in Kuwait if our principal (the Ambassador) decides to take a vacation from Al Basra. Whether it is a trip home to England, or an official call back to visit his superiors, his departure leaves us with the opportunity to drive south through the desert down to "Navstar", the checkpoint/refueling station at the Iraqi/Kuwaiti Border, just above Camp Doha.

During our first drive from "Navstar" to the CPA in Basra, we passed hundreds of military vehicles, dozens of personally owned trucks and cars (some which you can't believe run), and many donkey carts loaded with items ranging from LP gas containers to freshly slaughtered sheep. The road is littered with debris - abandoned vehicles, dead animals, trash, even rusted tanks and personnel carriers left over from Desert Storm '91. It's easy to spot a "Desert Storm" casualty from an "Iraqi Freedom" casualty by the condition of the paint on the vehicle and the location of the vehicle. Most of the Iraqi Freedom armor was abandoned before being destroyed and still sits adjacent to the vehicular fighting holes prepared by the Iraqi troops. Conversely, the majority of the rusted remnants from Desert Storm were blown into pieces while attempting to make a stand against our far-superior tanks and weaponry. Many a tank turret still lie next to their undercarriage, blown off by laser guided missiles or M-1 Abram Tank rounds. Quite a few have "DU" visibly spray painted on their sides, signifying they were hit by depleted uranium rounds, which left dangerous levels of radioactive materials inside the tanks.

It's hard to accurately describe the city we travel through on a daily basis. Recent rains have turned entire neighborhoods into lakes. Shoddy brick structures, which wouldn't qualify as backyard sheds in the U.S., serve as permanent residences to the 2 million residents of Basra. Most appear half finished, and you wonder in amazement how anyone could comfortably live inside without the constant fear that the structure will collapse around them. As you leave the city, the desert opens up and is dotted with large tents, mostly owned by the homeless Bedouins, or stateless people. The funny thing is that these people have permanently moored propane tanks and satellite dishes next to their tents. Something must ring true in the phrase "location, location, location". All across the desert, one sees long hills of piled dirt embankments stretch hundreds of miles North to Iraq, the work of Iraqi soldiers preparing for the "mother of all battles." Dozens of these embankments still have ditches inside which were meant to be filled with oil and set afire in hopes of staunching the movement of US Armor Northward.

Back to current events - our team escorted the Ambassador and his Aide to the Al Zubayr Police Academy yesterday to view the ongoing training of the new Iraqi Police Force by coalition members. A mixture of Brit, Finnish, Czech, and Italian civilian and military police are attempting to teach the Iraqi's the basics of policework and human rights. It amazes the training staff how foreign the concept of human rights is to an Iraqi. In the U.S., beatings of prisoners are against the law. In Iraq, it is not only tolerable, it is expected. This is what keeps them in line! Another concept unfamiliar to the typical Iraqi cop is "evidence." Although the Iraqi cops know they can seize contraband, be it drugs, weapons, latent fingerprints, etc, they fail to understand that the evidence can be used to convict the person. The average Iraqi cop seizes the evidence only because the contraband gives them reason to suspect a person of a crime. (remember - there is no such thing as sending the evidence to a lab for fingerprint analysis, etc. That technology just doesn't exist anymore, if it ever did). With contraband, the cop can now freely beat their prisoner until the person gives a confession. In Iraq, the confession proves the crime, not the seized items. So much for the poor sap who happens to have "evidence" dropped in his car or home. He'll be beaten until he confesses that the stuff was his, or worse.

We were assured the Police are slowly beginning to see the error of their ways, though that may only be lip service so they can graduate and earn a paycheck. It will be several years before all of the Iraqi Police force is trained by coalition forces, and perhaps longer before we realize whether the concept of human rights fits into the new Iraqi society.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Walk-about town

Our Principal decided to go on a walk through town today to meet some local shopkeepers and act the part of the politician he plays. (FYI - he is also referred to as the CPA Administrator, or by his official title of "Ambassador, CPA South," which includes the subserviant city CPA's in Al Nasiriyah, Samawa, and Al Amara). My entire security team felt this was a little risky, but obviously, we can only advise the principal of the potential threat of walking into town. Our primary concern is that everyone we encounter is an unscreened individual; unknown Iraqi's, former Ba'ath party officials, and former soldiers who've since blended into society. However, unless we know of a specific, direct threat posed against him, we still have to follow his wishes. Fortunatley, our CPA compound is also shared by a Brigade of British soldiers, who routinely patrol the city by foot and by vehicle. We quickly contacted the British S-3 officer who happily informed us which squads were patrolling certain areas the principal was interested in. By hook and by crook, we were able to liaison with a squad in town and join forces during the Principal's walk-about.The city market is a very hectic, crowded area set against the Euphrates River, known locally as the Shatt al Arab. The market is comprised of hundreds of small shops crowded in dirty alleyways, selling various items such as cloth, silk, seeds and herbs, carpets, and all sorts of electronic goods, proving capitalism is surely abound in Iraq. Some areas of the market span 20 or 30 feet wide, while other alleyways are only wide enough for 1 or 2 people to squeeze through. The alleys are criss-crossed with electrical wires so densely that you wonder how nobody is electrocuted when it rains. We stopped and greeted a number of local shopkeepers, as the Ambassador actually speaks Arabic and wanted to reassure the locals that the CPA is doing it's best to provide security for the people of Iraq. Numerous Iraqi's mentioned they were concerned about the violence in the city, to include IED's and gunfire which erupts nightly. However, they were all very impressed that a non-Arab could speak arabic, and more importantly, would venture out amongst them.The Ambassador took several minutes to stop in a small, dirty shop aout the size of a walk-in closet and have tea with an elderly Iraqi. Of course, Muslim culture dictates that you join them if offered, as it would be an insult to tunr them down. With one hand on my M-4 and the other delicately balancing my tea cup, I managed to keep an eye of the rooftops and the adjacent alley while still attempting to maintain the civility expected by our host. A sip or two is all that is required to show your appreication of their hospitality, although I hear many of the local teas contain traces of opium, which wouldn't fare too well on my next urinalysis!The biggest problem we faced during the hour long stroll was not potential IED's or suicide bombers, however. Actually, our biggest problem was the hundreds of children running in and out of our formation, trying with all their might to engage us in conversation and take our attention off of our Principal. During one brief stop, a local Iraqi who spoke English told me not to let the children get too close, for they were all little "Ali Baba's", or thieves, waiting for their chance to take something from us. In addition to our M-4 machine guns, each of us wears a drop-rig thigh holster containing a 9mm pistol, which seemed to be of great interest to the kids. Thankfully, they all have special locking mechanisms which keep anyone from being able to snathc the pistol from it's holster.Our walk-about ended without any problems, and we were all thankful to get back into our armored SUV's for the trip back to the compound. While the Ambassador's ventures certainly go a long way in assuring the Iraqi population that we as a coalition are tying our best, his outings surely provide my teamates and I with some tense moments as we weave trhough the crowds scanning for possible trouble.We are off to visit a local Police Training academy in the Al Maqil district of Basra (about a 30 minute car ride) tommorow. After hearing of today's bombing in Iraq which killed 50 Iraqi police and trainee's, it will be interesting to see if the population of the academy has decreased in the last 12 hours.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

A trip to An Nasiriyah

Just a few details of my visit to Nasiriyah and Samawa over the last 2 days...Was headed out from Basra to Nasiriyah yesterday morning. If you recall, this was the town where POW Jessica Lynch was rescued by US Marines. Our route to Nasiriya was approximately 60 miles. We passed numerous convoys of military machinery, gasoline tankers and trailers containing pre-fab shelters (like construction trailers) to be used by occupying troops. The convoys included American, Dutch, Romanian and Japanese security forces. It's pretty amazing to see Japanese forces in action, as they have not deployed to another country since the end of WWII. We arrived at the CPA in Nasiriyah mid afternoon to discuss some information with the staff regarding a previous mortar attack against one of the CPA's. Following the meeting, we continued on to an area west of Nasiriyah where the Dutch have a contingent of Marines and some Dutch Army soldiers. We spent the night there in some of those comfortable pre-fab trailers, which seem to have replaced the standard GP tents I got used to in the Marine Corps. Ahh, progress! The Dutch served us a fine dinner by the best looking female solders I have ever laid eyes on. Of course, they are all 6 feet tall and blonde, and probably all named Inga or Helga or somthing like that! Sorry, I digress. After a healthy nap, we departed for Samawa to meet some other individuals at the CPA Samawa. FYI...Each major town in Iraq has a CPA (Coalition Provisional AUthority), which permits the Coalition to administer the law in the town until such time it can be taken over by the locals. However, only 6 towns have actual CPA Ambassadors or Administrators, such as the one I work for in Basrah. All of the others are primarily military HQ's for Coalition troops who administer the law in that particular area. Our visit to Samawa was highlighted with a windshield and walking tour of Samawa from a couple of Dutch Marines who work at the CPA. There were 8 of us, including the Dutch, and we were all very security conscious (and heavily armed, of course). It was very interesting to see a town which had not only suffered from heavy fighting between the US forces and the Sadaam Fedayeen, but also from equally horrible destruction caused by the troops of Sadaam Hussein himself after the Gulf war, in reprisal for the locals rising against him after the Gulf War loss. In the short time I have been here, I have seen more poverty and hopelessness than I cared to experience. Unfortunately, it will take an entirely new generation of Iraqi's before society here can truly exist under our interpretation of freedom. The current generation has suffered so much under Hussein's rule and lived under such constant threat of torture that they will never fully trust us or any other force that promises freedom and hope. I can only hope the children we see will grow up differently. Al of them greet us with smiles and "thumbs up", and all seem to desparately want to communicate with us using any broken english they can.Our trip home was long and uneventful. We just missed a visit by Prince Charles, who visited his troops at the CPA in Basra only hours before our arrival. Since our return, we have been hearing the constant popping of AK-47 rounds beyond the compound walls, which hopefully relate to the celebration of a wedding and not the threats of troublemakers.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Arrival February 2004

Finally got in country 2 days ago. The ride in from Kuwait was quite interesting and a litle pucker factor was present the whole way. The compound here is pretty nice. We are living in CONEX boxes, 2 to a box (sort of like what you see put onto container ships). There is a bathroom in the middle of each box, so we each have our own private living area. New beds, linens and new desk and wall locker. Even has an AC unit. Our office on the compound is in one of the elongated pre-fab trailers, and has 3 email computers, so it aint bad living here. I did manage to get some very tasty chow following arrival - one thing I can't complain about here is the food. Much better than MRE's! CRG is the other firm here doing protection for all the other individuals beyond our principal. They are a british firm similar to Blackwater, a private US contrator. We share one side of the compound while the Brits have the other. Not a lot of co-mingling that I can see. Separate facilities, dining, and hooches. Overall, it could be a lot worse. We drove thru town yesterday on our first mission. The place is one of the nastiest, most poverty striken countries Ive seen. Ranks right up there with the slum areas of Manila and New Dehli. Horrible living conditions for the locals; all dirt and mud streets, lots of stray dogs and garbage everywhere you look. The air is filled with the smell of burning garbage and tires and has a permanenet haze about it. It was pretty amazing driving up from Kuwait. There were dozens of burned out tanks and BMPs still lying in the fields. Many of the bridges we crossed had only one side open as the other had been bombed and destroyed. Have got a long drive and overnight stay elsewhere today. Was hoping to see my sister Kathy on Saturday but that trip got cancelled at the last minute and a new one came up. At least we are keeping busy.