Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Flying East

On February 15th, we left our temporary home at Camp Victory and traveled via bus to the Kuwait International Airport, the next stop in our journey eastward. After boarding a charter jet at the Kuwait City International Airport, we departed for Shannon, Ireland, our one and only layover between Kuwait and Cherry Point, North Carolina. Our brief stop in Shannon gave us the opportunity to debark the plane and stretch our legs inside the international terminal. Most of the Marines headed straight for the bar to purchase their first beer since arriving in Iraq. The Marines were given a 2 beer limit, primarily to avoid any alcohol related incidents on our way home. At 6:30 in the morning, however, I was in no mood for a beer and opted for a double-shot of espresso instead. Several Marines opted to spend their time browsing the duty free shops in search of some last minute trinkets for kids, spouses and significant others.

Traveling with us were Marines from the 2nd Marine Logistics Group (2nd MLG), formerly referred to as 2nd FSSG. Aboard the plane, the 350 Marines were split among coach and first class. The Officers and Staff NCOÂ’s were led to the front of the aircraft where smiling crewmembers greeted us warmly. Though I try not to abuse the privileges of being an Officer, the first class section was one perk I was definitely not going to refuse! I took full advantage of the supple leather seats with integrated foot rests, extra legroom, and in-seat televisions. I started feeling sorry for the Marines stuck in coach, but quickly drifted off in a comfortable slumber, the roar of the jet engines lulling me to sleep. After traveling in cramped helicopters and HMMWVÂ’s over the last few months, I wasn't about to give up my spot in first class.

Nearly 15 hours after leaving Kuwait, the plane touched down at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, NC. The date was February 15th, 2006, the sun shining brightly as we taxied down the runway and eased into the terminal area. The Marines were all smiles as the doors opened and we caught our first breath of fresh Carolina air. Gone were the pungent odors of burning trash and port-o-johns. We had finally arrived home.

After an hour of sifting through seabags and MOLLE packs, our group boarded buses for Jacksonville, NC. A short, 30 minute drive led us straight to the gates of Camp Lejeune, home base to the majority of Marines traveling with me. As we approached the MEF Headquarters, family members of Marines could be seen standing behind signs and placards, waiting to welcome home their loved ones whom they so dearly missed over the last few months.

The next 5 days would be spent attending mandatory briefings, required of all returning warriors. These classes included safety lectures, a brief from the Chaplain, and a host of other nitnoid lectures focused on helping the Marines readjust to normal life. Certainly nothing earth shattering or difficult, the classes were usually over by noon, the rest of the day available for PT or relaxation with family, a nice way to transition back to life at home. Soon enough, the Marines will be preparing for their next deployment. These few days of easy living will pass, and the Marines will be back to normal, ready to serve wherever they are called to do so. That is the life of a Marine.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Paradise Sands

Camp Victory Kuwait, a fitting name. For Warrant Officer Fay and myself, it was indeed a small victory, the end of a successful tour in Iraq, both of us leaving Fallujah healthy and filled with memories of a lifetime. Memories that will only be surpassed by our next deployment, wherever that my be.

Camp Victory is our second waypoint between Camp Fallujah and home. The layovers are built into the retrograde for the purpose of mental and physical decompression. Studies conducted on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have prompted such efforts, Marines and sailors using the opportunity to discuss their experiences and enjoy each others company for the final few days without the worries of leaving the wire, the possibility of striking an IED or being ambushed by an invisible enemy.

The camp is similar in appearance to the military camps in Iraq – Hesco barriers, checkpoints, concertina wire and endless rows of tents. Marines and soldiers mill about the area, waiting for the buses that will ferry them to the airstrip, taking them on the final leg of their journey. Despite the isolation from civilization, the camp has several amenities to keep the Marines busy during their lull in travel. A wonderful USO tent sits in the center of the camp, air conditioned and carpeted. A sign inside the door reads "Please remove your boots - Really!!" Similar to the practice of removing ones shoees before entereing a home in Japan or Hawaii, all Marines entereing the USO take off their boots and store them in little wooden cubby holes ab le to accomodate a hundred pairs of boots and shoes. Marines stroll the USO in uniform and stocking feet, a funny sight for all to see. Free internet terminals sit off to one side of the USO, the very spot I sit writing this post. Situated inside a large quonset hut, it is filled it with furniture typically found at Ikea, comfortable sofas scattered about; large soft pillows piled high in the center of the room. Weary Marines lie peacefully among the pillows, dreaming of their impending reunion with family and sweethearts. Free coffee and internet service is available, and lazy boy lounge chairs provide comfortable seating areas in front of several large screen TV’s, movies running all day long. We sit in the lap of luxury.

The rest of the camp is typical – the remainder of the area containing the KBR chow hall, AT&T telephone centers and Haji-marts, those small local trinket stands where Marines have the last opportunity to spend their hard earned money on tacky plastic camels and Arabic headdresses.

Waiting for a flight has never been so pleasant. I’ll take Camp Victory over Dulles International Airport anytime!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Journey Home

I am on my way home, my journey beginning last evening at the Camp Fallujah LZ. The night air was brisk, the moonlight filtered through a thin haze of dust and fog. The 46's and 53's rolled in wave after wave, boarding faceless Marines, one vague silouhette after another, barely perceptable as they sauntered across the LZ toward the awaiting helos. The chop of the rotors cutting their "thwop-thwop" sounds in the air, Marines and sailors eager to leave the Camp behind to their successors.

I am still in theater, several days coser to the charter flight that will wisk us from the middle east to Europe, a quick layover, catching our first beer in months, a precursor to the final leg of our journey.

I am looking forward to the reunion with my family. Yet, ironically, I am saddened to leave this god-forsaken place, to leave behind the Marines with whom I've lived and worked, my brothers, the men who are part of me and I them. I don't want to leave, not just yet, I haven't finished what I started, Please, I'm not ready to go....

It is time. A confusing time. Happy and sad. As if I'm losing something; It's hard, I don't understand why it has to feel this way...The end of my journey is close at hand. The long road home has begun.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Production Crew

The Marine Corps is like a movie set. You've got your Producer (the Commanding General), the Director (the Deputy CG), the editor (the Chief of Staff), and your screen writers (the G-3 Operations staff). In the limelight, you've got your movie stars, the actors and actresses whom we watch on the big screen. In the Corps, your movie star is the 0311 Infantry Marine. Your basic grunt. He's the guy in the field, carrying out the actions and heroics that make the Marine Corps famous. He's the guy whom everyone else in the Corps is paid to support. He's the guy we think of when we hear the title "Marine."

Behind every successful director and movie star, there are a number of players that ensure the successful production of the film. You've got stuntmen and gaffers, key grips, wardrobe personnel and a host of other positions. Just like Hollywood, the Marine Corps has its own production crew, a bevvy of Marines who work behind the scenes to support their "cast" to ensure a succsseful operation. I've met a few of the Corps "production crew," the men and women who'll never be the stars, but will always be the backbone of the Corps, the reason for our success.

There’s US Navy Petty Officer (MR1) James Heard,a Machinery Repairman deployed with the 133rd Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (aka: the “Seabees”). Machinery Repairmen are skilled machine tool operators. They traditionally make replacement parts, repair or overhaul ship's engines and auxiliary systems, and work on deck equipment including winches and hoists, condensers and heat exchange devices. Miles from the ocean, MR1 Heard finds himself “working steel,” using his skills to design and craft specialty parts to sustain operations aboard the camp. He’s machined items ranging from custom water hose couplings for the Camp Fallujah Fire Department to replacement refrigeration parts for the dining facility. He’s produced bolt-on vehicle armor to protect our HMMWV convoy vehicles and has hastily manufactured specialty parts to repair inoperable M-240G machine guns. With only a lathe, drill press and grinder, he quickly turns scrap of metal into a functional object. He is the Picasso of steel.

Commander Stephen Christopher is also a repairman of sorts – he spends his days fixing broken fillings and cracked teeth of Marines and sailors deployed to OIF. He’s also spent time with soldiers of the Iraqi Army, providing emergency treatment to those in dire need of dental care. As the 2nd Marine Division Dental Officer, he has personally treated over 1100 patients during his deployment. A wanderer of sorts, I met CDR. Christopher at Hurricane Point in Ramadi, home of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. He and his dental technician travel lightly, carrying a fold-up dental chair and dental tools in addition to their M-16’s and body armor. Despite the lack of a permanent office and the specialty tools associated with CONUS dentistry, he performs magic with cracked teeth, extractions, fillings and temporary crowns, a task made more difficult in the hostile environment of Iraq.

Major Mark Gilday, the II MEF (Fwd) G-4 Motor Transport Officer, was intimately involved with the introduction and installation of Marine Armor Kits (MAK) and Marine Armor Systems (MAS) on hundreds of II MEF (Fwd) HMMWV’s and 7-ton trucks. If you recall, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked by an Army soldier in December, 2004, "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" The Secretary’s initial response was testy. "You go to war with the army you have," he barked. The soldier’s question, it turned out, had been planted by a reporter embedded with the US Army 278th Regimental Combat Team. The effects of the question, however, resulted in a firestorm of activity for the Army and the Marine Corps over the next 12 months. Since deploying to Camp Fallujah, Major Gilday has coordinated the up-armoring of nearly 1200 of the II MEF’s HMMWV’s with the new MAK systems. These improvements have greatly increased the survivability of our Marines in the field.

Lance Corporal Stephanie Twichell, a Marine Corps reservist from New Orleans, LA, enlisted in the Corps in June, 2004. She’s spent her deployment guarding prisoners and suspected insurgents at the Regional Detention Facility (RDF) in Camp Fallujah. She performs a thankless job made even less enviable following the US Army debacle at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. However, you’ll rarely find a Marine complain about this important duty, knowing they are the thin blue line that separates the residents of Camp Fallujah from the captured insurgents. Breaking the monotony of daily prisoner counts, feedings, and searches, she spends her off-duty hours learning new law enforcement techniques, such as TASER training, escalation of force and riot control. The challenges of deployment were doubled when Hurricane Katrina ravaged her hometown. Regardless, LCpl. Twichell continues to serve her country and her Corps with dignity and without a complaint.

In Al Qaim, Iraq, I ran into Captain Timothy Evans, Company Commander for Food Service Company, H&S Battalion, II Marine Logistics Group, formerly known as the FSSG. Captain Evans enlisted in the Corps in 1983 and is currently a limited duty officer, deployed to Iraq to supervise the fielding of the new Field Food Service System (FFSS), a mobile kitchen unit which will update the old Marine Corps “mess kitchens,” taking us away from 1950’s technology and into the 21st century of food preparation. Captain Evans supervised the installation of these portable kitchen units at FIRM bases and FOB’s along the Syrian border, the unit itself enclosed within two 20’ x 8’ self-sufficient ISO containers similar to those seen stacked aboard transatlantic freighters. In lieu of eating MRE’s and pogey bait, the grunts on the front lines can now enjoy freshly prepared hot chow from these portable kitchens, capable of operating in black-out environments, all the while providing the field messmen protection from indirect and small arms fire. Nothing motivates a dirty, tired, and worn-out troop better than hot chow.

Others, like Colonel Gary Wilson, a retired Marine
brought back on active duty to serve as the II MEF (Fwd) Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer (ATFP), conduct their daily duties atypical to that of their fellow Marines. The Colonel and his small staff play the part of the devils advocate, intentionally thinking and acting like the bad guy. They develop “red cell” ideas and schemes on how to successfully attack the base and threaten the safety of our Marines. He and his team conduct surveys of the camp perimeter in search of vulnerabilities and weaknesses, an attempt to uncover weaknesses in a units force protection stance. Afterward, he suggests methods to correct the vulnerabilities and improve the levels of protection for Marines deployed in theater. His findings are sometimes rebuffed by Commanders unwilling to believe they are less than prefect, that their individual force protection plans may have missed something upon implementation. Regardless, the Colonel and his staff are the mechanism that identifies and helps bring in the necessary technology and equipment to further enhance the safety of our Marines, be they in Camp, at a checkpoint, or in a vehicle.

Similar to the my job as the Marine Corps Field Historian, Sgt. Josh Hauser spends his deployment collecting stories from Marines far and wide. Sgt. Hauser is a combat correspondent with the II MEF Headquarters Group (MHG), traveling from FOB to FOB, embedding with Marines from various companies and platoons in search of the stories that will tell the world the tale of the Marine Corps in OIF. Unlike my Field History collection, Sgt. Hauser’s stories are published in hometown newspapers, spreading the exploits of our young Marines at work and play in Iraq. He’s a gypsy among Marines, attempting to live the story of which he writes, if only for a short period of time. His weapons are his camera and pen, although he has often put them aside to shoulder his weapon to protect himself and his temporary family. He goal as a combat correspondent is to balance the negative image of the Marine Corps as portrayed in mainstream media with good news stories from our Marines, fighting the good fight, doing what needs to be done to protect the freedoms of the naysayers back home.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Ever since my first visit to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. in 1975, I’ve been enamored with life-sized, walk-through dioramas depicting different eras of history. In the National Air and Space Museum, one such exhibit depicts life aboard an aircraft carrier. As you proceed across a makeshift quarterdeck, you enter an area resembling the landing deck of a ship. Various aircraft of different makes and models crowd the deck, wings folded up as if they were at sea. As you wind your way between the aircraft, you enter the bridge where you watch jets take off and land along the steam covered decks of the ship. Reels of Vietnam era film footage, complete with the sounds or roaring jet engines, provide a semi-believable recreation of life aboard an aircraft carrier.

The American History Museum recreates WWII through several life-sized dioramas. One can walk past jeeps parked haphazardly around a bombed out building, European household knick-knacks littering the ground adjacent to a realistic wall that appears to be crumbling from the effects of war. These scenes are reproduced to allow the visitors to step back in time, to see for themselves the same scenes viewed by Marines, sailors and soldiers in 1944. Someday, these same museums will recreate similar scenes depicting life during OIF, or Operation Iraqi Freedom. One day, we’ll see scenes depicting the urban battlefield of Ramadi or Fallujah and displays depicting daily life among the various camps and FOBs around Iraq.

Yesterday, with the assistance of two Seabees from the 133rd Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB-133), I was able to collect a particular artifact I have had my eye on since arriving in Iraq. I previously mentioned it in an October, 2005 blog post titled “Generals and Barberchairs” - please forgive the redundant information.

One of the most innovative pieces of unintentional folk art I’ve run across since arriving in theater, the Camp Fallujah barberchair consists of an automobile seat that was taken from the rear of a van or SUV. Welded to a military vehicle wheel rim, the entire unit swivels atop a metal mount, the mount hidden beneath the raised wooden floor inside the Camp Fallujah barbershop.

Granted, there is nothing remarkable about most barberchairs. You’ll find them in every city and town across the United States. This chair, however, is unique, and the ingenuity of the young sailors and Marines who produced this eclectic chair is typical of sailors and Marines deployed far from home. They universally subscribe to the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Using only their innovation and imagination, they create items needed to combat the enemy or to make life more comfortable while idling away time in the rear.

Rather than sit on a plastic chair or box when getting a haircut, an ingenious young sea-bee from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 1 (NMCB-1) manufactured the chair out of scrap items lying about Camp Fallujah. Wanting to make the chair swivel, our unidentified sea-bee brought new life to a scrap M-79 rifle mount for a 106 mm recoilless rifle. Originally entering US military service in the 50’s and 60’s, the mount and its missing weapon probably made its way to Iraq decades ago, most likely used during the Iran/Iraq war and quite possibly against coalition forces in Desert Storm and OIF. Life is circular, however, and the mount once again serves our forces in war, only this time in a much different and friendlier capacity.

“Frankenchair” has seen her last haircut. Replaced with a simple plastic chair, "Frankenchair" is destined for the Marine Corps Museum. Symbolizing camp life and the ingenuity of our servicemen, it has hosted Marines from Private to General, as well as Marines who are no longer with us, Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice. If it could talk, it would repeat the tales told by Marines since 2003, tales recounting heroics during the battle of Fallujah and explanations of the sights and sounds seen and heard by our Corps of warriors. It would also tell the tall tales spun by our young Marines, the same stories heard for years among small town barbershops, tales similar to those heard by Andy and Barnie at “Floyds Barbershop” in Mayberry.