Postcards from Tradocia

iraq gear guide, signal corps style, part 1

There are a lot of websites and magazines that discuss the bewildering array of tactical gear available; publications like SWAT magazine and Soldier of Fortune have tons of articles on the topic.

Being a Signal soldier, however, “tactical” items like magazine pouches, load-bearing equipment, and patrol slings take a back seat to things like MP3 players, computers, and digital cameras. With that in mind, here’s my mid-tour AAR (after-action review) on the crap that I brought.

(BTW, for anyone who’s reading this…please forward this to anyone who might be coming over here – I’m just trying to pass my experience on here. :)

Power is, of course, the primary factor with all electronic devices. Any camp you find yourself at in Iraq has local power, which is 220V/50Hz and also has a crazy three-prong plug. This means that you’re going to need some combination of plug adapters and transformers to power your crap.

Check the power supplies for your gear – it should list the voltage requirements and current draw. A lot of things like laptops, camera battery chargers, and the like will take 100-240V power, which means that you don’t need a transformer, just a plug adapter. Other items, like the chargers for Motorola Talkabout radios, are 110V only, which means you do need a transformer.

Transformers vary in price and capacity, and both the PX and the on-post shops run by LNs (local nationals) should sell them. Of course, when you arrive in-country, there’s going to be a huge run on all kinds of goods, so unless you snap one up early, you could go for a few weeks without (like I did). It might behoove you to buy one before deploying (no idea where you would get one, though), because it’d save you the trouble and also many sold here are real pieces of shit.

Be mindful of the current draw (in amps) of your gear when buying your transformer; most of them are rated in how many watts they put out, and leave it for you to figure out how much current it can handle. The formula is watts / volts = amps (e.g., my transformer is 500W and outputs 110V so I guess it can handle a little under 5A). Most laptops and other small digital devices draw very little current (less than an amp), so any transformer will be fine. Watch out for power tools, TVs, and other crazy stuff though – JoKur plugged his 12 amp circular saw into his 350W transformer on about our second day and needless to say it wasn’t the same after that. (I knew none of this crap before getting here, so don’t think I’m some kind of super-genius – school of hard knocks, baby!)

Oh, and definitely bring a power strip – the PX does sell them but they’re usually out of stock and often are more than you need.

If you end up living in a tent powered by American generators, you won’t have to worry about any of this crap. Just watch out when it rains, har har!

Laptop computer
Probably the single most crucial piece of equipment for any REMF. Don’t deploy without one! A laptop can play movies and music; it can store and display your digital photos; it can play games, and not just computer ones – with a few emulator programs, you can play Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and even Playstation1 games; and you can use it for composing letters, emails, and any other documents you might need to produce during your tour.

Laptops are powerful enough to do most everything your desktop can do, so don’t worry about losing capabilities if you’ve never owned one before. However, it’s axiomatic that you can only get two of three traits in a laptop (the three being “fast,” “cheap,” and “small”). It can be fast and cheap, but it’ll be huge; it can be cheap and small, but it won’t be fast; it can be fast and small, but it’ll cost you an arm and a leg.

Environmental hazards are a real concern. Any laptop you purchase isn’t necessarily a write-off, but there’s a real chance that your machine won’t survive the journey. You can take steps to reduce the risk, such as using your computer only indoors and investing in at least a big plastic bag to store it in. If you’re worried about the cost of replacing your laptop, you’d be well advised to buy a cheaper machine (good ones can be had for as little as $500), in case you drop it in the mud one day or something.

Features to look for? Get something with at least a three-hour battery – and make sure it’s three hours under load, not three hours just idling. Knock about 25% off the rated battery life (at a minimum) for more power-intensive applications like playing games or watching a DVD. Almost every new laptop comes with a DVD reader + CD burner, which you should have at a minimum, for watching movies and trading files with your battle buddies. If you can get a DVD burner, so much the better – much easier to back up all your photos or music files that way.

My gear: Sony VAIO V505-EX. 1.5GHz Pentium-M CPU, 768MB RAM (upgraded), 60GB hard drive, 12.1″ screen. Cost: $1750

Pros: sexy looking, good battery life (3-6 hours), has IEEE1394/firewire port, good balance of size and performance, bright screen

Cons: screen has horrible viewing angle, color balance is all wrong, brightness is much higher than other monitors which makes photo editing difficult, driver support from Sony is mediocre

Bring it to Iraq?: It’s the perfect size and I’m quite happy with it, except for the screen, which is a major disappointment. It’s held up well so far; we’ll see how it does in the heat of summer.

Bring a mouse if you hate touchpads. Personally, I really only need a mouse for playing games, though it is handy for photo editing and whatnot.

Speakers are nice to have, especially if you’re living in a trailer and not a tent over here. Don’t count on being able to buy speakers in-country, though – even on Camp Liberty, the PX doesn’t sell them. The “bazaar” (a.k.a., “haji shop”) does, but they’re crappy and they run on local power, not US-type, so they’re basically useless if you bring them home.

Headphones are a must. Even if you don’t have an MP3 player or CD player, you’re going to want headphones for those times when your roomate is racked out or when you want to be left alone. Earbuds are portable and handy; the ones that came with my iPod are really quite good. I keep thinking about getting some bigger, studio-style headphones, but where would I put them? I’d have to ship them home.

Printers? Not worth it. You might be able to find ink cartridges or toner cartridges, but you can’t count on it. If you desperately need to print something, your company or battalion TOC should have a printer and maybe they’ll let you use it (for pay statements and whatnot). I haven’t had to print anything yet.

My gear: Microsoft mini-mouse, Altec Lansing speakers

pros: mouse is tiny and works fine. No complaints really. Speakers were only $25 shipped from, straight to Iraq. They’re loud and they make noise. What more can I ask for?

cons: mouse has a short cord.

(to be continued)


  1. Mrs. Melobi

    You can get plug adapters at Urban Outfitters. Sometimes. They were out of the type I needed for Argentina.

    Yes folks, I

  2. SGT Thompson

    For a fun experiment… Plug your (or your unsuspecting roomate’s) american clock into a transformer. Watch as your clock enters the time warp. Hours lose minutes, Days lose hours, Weeks lose days… It’s amazing.

    Now if only i could apply this time warp to other things.

  3. Delobius

    Good point about the alarm clocks btw…although, don’t I want the reverse effect here? I don’t think slowing down time while in Iraq is going to achieve the intended results…

    And yes folks, Mrs. Melobi is whooping it up while I’m at war. Typical, eh? I knew it was all about getting to my big and bad E-4 salary…

  4. Spc herndon

    HI…My first post btw, sorry it’s lame @$$!~
    But I think I broke my brain, happy time in iraq

  5. Sean

    I’ll have to put a post one all the gear guides that came out of Iraq, linking each one. This is a great one!

  6. jpickens

    I would recommend an optical mouse.
    They don’t have the rubber ball inside to get all gunked up with dust and stuff.
    There is alot of dust in Iraq, NO?
    Never been there, but the field labs I work in are hell on old style mechanical mice.

  7. Delobius

    Yeah, an optical mouse is a must. I didn’t mention that since I forgot that ball mice even still existed…

  8. nitromoose

    It’s good to see that the signal pukes are still taking all the best stuff to the field.

    Used to take a 13in tv/vcr combo to graffenwier, one guy would bring his PS1, and everyone would bring movies.

    And the 50hz to 60hz change between us powered systems and the local (german) power systems made me late for PT more than once (least that’s what I told my plt daddy)

  9. Rob

    GO SIGNAL! Last field problem we had everyone else was sucking sand but my team had our own tent complete with two fans, lights, power strips, PS2, Dell flat screen tv… We made the best of it.
    Thanks – Your post was just the sort of info I was looking for. What else can you offer?

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