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Postcards from Tradocia

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A Rare Sky

A rare day with clouds here. Makes it almost seem like we’re on Earth instead of Tatooine (click for larger):

Clouds over Kuwait

Clouds over Kuwait

The Riddle of Steel

Thanks to Borg, we now have some fine handcrafted wood furniture for our TV and other entertainment equipment. While he’s no master of saw and drill like JoKur, I have no complaints – I could do no better myself. Besides, this is a war zone – things should be slightly dodgy! Or something.

What happened to this truck?

What happened to this truck?

Meanwhile, a couple of mysteries have surfaced. The first is the mystery of one of our command post trucks. From a distance, it looked burned – I thought at first that maybe it had burst into flames on the boat ride here. This would be totally par for the course with these vehicles, and so what should have been alarm was really more like resignation on my part. Upon closer inspection, though, I could see it wasn’t fire damage – but what was it? No idea.

(Interestingly enough, this same truck can be seen here, at our annual training in 2010, when we received the accursed thing.)

What about this mysterious patch of vegetation? As you can see, it’s clustered around a drain spout. A-ha, one might say – obviously runoff has caused a local area of growth. But every barracks building – and there are scores of them – has two drain spouts per side (for a total of four), yet none has a “lawn” like this one. A botanical experiment in progress, perhaps?

Ten Years Later

Photo copyright James Nachtwey for TIME

Photo copyright James Nachtwey for TIME

Ten years on, we still live in the long shadow of September 11, 2001, that horrific day that changed our lives in ways big and small, known and unknown, a historical discontinuity that stands among the most significant events of American history, and certainly the most significant in recent memory. It seems trite to write about “how 9-11 affected me,” but there are many better and smarter writers who will put the event in its proper perspective, so the personal is what is left to me.

I was in my last semester of college that year, living in the suburbs and commuting to school. That September morning, I was getting ready for class (a lazy 11 am start to classes on Tuesdays), when my roommate yelled to turn on the TV, because something terrible had happened. I did so, and watched along with the rest of the world as the World Trade Center collapsed in dust and flame. I went to class that morning, and we discussed the day’s events. Classes were then cancelled for the day, and I went home.

After that, I don’t remember doing much differently. I put an American flag sticker on my car, and graduated college, and went to work for the university. The war in Afghanistan began; my only connection to the war was a friend from high school, who was serving on the USS Enterprise, the aircraft carrier that launched some of the first airstrikes there.

In August of 2002, though, I joined the National Guard. In March of 2003, I went to basic training, and while there, the war in Iraq began. One of my drill sergeants said, “mark my words, you’ll all be there someday.” I laughed off his bluster, but his prediction proved correct.

On the tenth anniversary of that day that changed the world, I’m here in Kuwait, serving with tens of thousands of my brothers and sisters, wondering where we’d be but for 19 hateful men. Would I have joined the Guard if 9-11 had never happened? Impossible to say, but it seems unlikely. I didn’t join out of some sense of going on a terrorist hunt or some revenge fantasy, but the military did seem like the right place to be during such a historic time, if that makes any sense.

I don’t know. It’s easy to ascribe monumental significance to your decisions after the fact, when in reality something like joining the Guard was a decision that was complex and weighed by many factors, most of them pedestrian. But the mood, the environment, the zeitgeist if you will, tilted me in that direction and touched everything that happened in my life after that day. Everything since then – my career, my marriage, my friends and lifestyle – all inevitably changed when those four airliners veered off course to bury themselves in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the fields of Pennsylvania. Those hijackers wanted to change the world, and change the world they did – for countless millions all around the world, in countless ways. I’m just one of them.

Fast Food War

Just another colonel among many

Just another colonel among many

“Wherever you go, we go” was the PX’s old tagline, but that might be more aptly applied to America’s great contribution to the culinary world: fast food.

Every major base in the GWOT has some sort of fast food representation, and has had such since the beginning of the war. Bases in Kuwait, having been here since the first Gulf War, are no exception. On our humble swatch of sand here, the vendor list is impressive: KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Charley’s subs, Subway, Hardees, Burger King, Baskin Robbins, Starbucks, the Pizza Inn, Nathan’s Hot Dogs, a donut shop, and a Chinese restaurant. It’s enough to make a guy wonder if it’s the jihadists’ secret plan to defeat us gastronomically, since they can’t beat us on the battlefield.

Mrs. Melobi asked me why anyone would pay for eating, when the DFAC across the street offers an endless bounty of free food, in such variety and quantity as to boggle the mind. Logic would argue that paying for food would be foolish in this environment, but logic has little to do with it. Rather, it’s that paying for and eating fast food feels “normal” to most Americans, and normalcy is what many people seek here.

Honestly, eating at the DFAC is a little weird. You stand in a line out in the sweltering heat, then are corralled through the mandatory hand-washing station, after which you dry your hands on what you think is a roll of paper towels but is really more like toilet paper, which makes the stuff disintegrate on your hands. (One quickly learns to dab daintily, rather than rub vigorously.) You then proceed to stand in another line, where a bunch of Indians who barely speak English sling huge piles of your chosen food onto your plastic plate, which is divided into three areas, just like if you were on a picnic. Miraculously, these men never get your order wrong, which is more than you can say for many hash-slingers back home, who a) are native English speakers and b) only have to push a couple of numbers on a keypad.¬† After getting your food, you then go get your drink, and hit the salad bar, or get a jelly donut with soft serve ice cream on it (I’ve seen it done), or whatever you desire. Finally, you sit down in the dining hall with a couple hundred of your closest friends and chow down. The whole thing is lit like a hospital ward, all huge banks of fluorescent lamps and white walls, and at the end you unceremoniously dump your tray into a big garbage can and shuffle back out into the heat.

Have it your way, as long as you don't want mustard

Have it your way, as long as you don't want mustard

This combination of cafeteria-assembly line-hospital-party hall seems to subconsciously unnerve some people; many complain about the food after the first couple of months, but I wonder if it isn’t really the environment. Some just give up on the place entirely – one of our predecessors said she only ate at the DFAC ten or twelve times in her whole nine-month stay here. I believed it, since every day for lunch she’d come back to the TOC with bags from Pizza Hut, or Taco Bell, or Subway.

The fast food experience, on the other hand, is virtually identical to what you’d find anywhere else in the world. The smells and tastes are all the same, for better or for worse, except that you cannot get mustard on your burger, no matter what. Neither Hardee’s nor Burger King have mustard, nor did they on my last tour in Iraq. It makes no sense, because the DFAC has mustard, but there it is. At any rate, I think that the activity of exchanging money for food is such a habit for many people that it’s just something that must be done occasionally, if only to remember how such transactions work. That’s how it is for me: a little voice nags at me, saying, “you should spend some money on something since you haven’t lately.” OK, if you insist.

Fast food is firmly entrenched in the 21st century war experience, and is unlikely to go anywhere. When General McChrystal took command in Afghanistan, he proposed closing all the fast food joints in operation (sparing the coffee shops, of course – hard to run a staff without coffee). That didn’t happen, though – he resigned before his ban could go into effect, after the Rolling Stone interview scandal, and his successor didn’t try to pick up that policy, instead allowing it to fade away quietly. Here in Kuwait, Americans will likely have a presence here for many years to come, so I’m sure the fast food will stay here too. Maybe by the next time I come around this place, I can get some mustard.

Brass Knuckles & Flashlights

It’s been ten days since we officially took over the mission here, and already it’s hard to tell that our predecessors even existed. Signs have been changed, web pages altered, desks rearranged, SOPs remade, procedures rethought, all in a frantic effort to make our mark. Like a giant meteor suddenly wiping out the dinosaurs in a flash of light and a torrent of ash, our unit stands on the proverbial bones of brigades past, sometimes seeming like those other deployments never happened. Yet occasionally an artifact from these long-ago soldiers (long ago being two rotations ago) surfaces from the geological strata of filing cabinets and web servers: an old unit crest or phone roster, reminders of our predecessors and their hard work.

Sometimes, people still call us looking for soldiers of these brigades long past. Some poor 2nd lieutenant from the help desk called me the other day, asking about computers on our network that had policy exemptions in effect. I told him I didn’t know of any in our possession, and he asked if he could talk to some master sergeant from the 29th IBCT. I said well sir, that was three rotations ago – so maybe late 2008 or 2009? I think he’s gone now. I know we’re just lowly Guardsmen, living in the slums of Zone 6, far from the fancy silverware and swimming pools of Zone 1, but you’d think they’d have some clue as to who their subordinate units were. I didn’t blame the lieutenant, though; I’m sure he just showed up, fresh out of Officer Basic Course, and they handed him a list and said, “start making calls.”

1st Red BullsOne of the changes around town is a new sign outside the TOC. This sign was produced some weeks ago, and I immediately noticed something¬†amiss: the unit patch image had obviously been blown up from a tiny web graphic to a giant square decal. It looks horrible, and I couldn’t help but voice my objection – we’ll be the laughing stock of the camp! Everyone will think we’re a bunch of talentless National Guard hacks with no graphic design skills! The TAG said we can’t use the Red Bull with the 1 in it! Etc Obviously, as the sign’s presence attests, my objections fell on deaf ears, and there it stands, a proudly pixelated mess. (The sign also says “Kuwait” under our name. No shit we’re in Kuwait!) I guess it’s not really that bad – from a distance, the pixelation isn’t that noticeable, and some people can’t notice it at all, so probably no one will ever know. But it remains my secret shame, and I avert my gaze from it every morning.

The heat is starting to break, as we head into September. It’s still over 100 degrees, but it wasn’t quite as oppressive today, a slight lifting of the sun’s punishing hand. The mornings are becoming almost pleasant, maybe in the 80s or low 90s; before you know it, I’ll be digging out my extreme cold weather parka! Maybe not. But the days go by quickly; indeed, instead of trying to fill my hours, I’m scrambling for more, both at the TOC and on my off time. Soon it’ll be winter and I’ll be home for leave, shoveling snow from the driveway and human food into my mouth, and maybe by then the Iraq war will be over, depending on the whim of the Iraqi government. That’s a topic for another day, though…

Movement in Still Life

I never ran a mile in my life (at least, not with running shoes on a course) until I joined the Army in 2002. Since then, running has been a necessity for me, not a pleasure; the yearly physical fitness test, featuring a 2-mile run, has made sure of that. Luckily, I’ve never had a problem with running my required mileage: no injuries, no lung problems, no particular hatred for the activity, just no desire to do it any more than necessary.

Riding a bike, on the other hand, became an interest of mine a few years ago; it’s exercise, but you go fast and buy expensive stuff! What’s not to like? Running is drudgery and takes a seeming eternity to cover much ground; riding a bike, on the other hand, is as hard as you want to make it, and cruising along at seventeen miles per hour means the miles just fall away under your spinning cranks.

The bike also means solitude. Alone in the saddle, the sounds of the trail or the city mix with the rhythmic thrum of the drivetrain and the measured in-out-in-out of my breathing, obliterating conscious thought and enveloping me in a bubble-world that no one can penetrate. For that reason, I lugged my bike twelve hundred miles to my last Army-sponsored vacation, at scenic Fort Gordon. It proved a worthy companion, carrying me around the range road loop in the fort’s back forty on sunny winter weekends; more importantly, it gave me an escape from the press of barracks life. I’ve become considerably more outgoing since I enlisted, but I remain an introvert at heart, so being alone is an essential part of my routine.

Kuwait posed a special problem. Obviously, shipping my road bike to the war was a non-starter; likewise, acquiring a $99 Wal-Mart bike on the camp wasn’t going to happen. It might make me sound like a snob, but that would be like driving a Chevette after owning a Ferrari. Furthermore, where would a guy ride? Do loops on the sand-blasted roads around the camp, with three or four laps to make twenty miles?

My new idea came, as it often does, in pursuit of a shiny new thing to buy. This time, shoes: the New Balance Minimus Trail, a low-profile “minimalist” shoe, caught my eye for some reason. This unleashed a flurry of internet research and next thing you know, I’m reading about running technique and minimalist running and proprioception and all kinds of weird shit I hadn’t known about, let alone cared about, just a few days before. Thus did my nerdiness intersect at last with running, and a new interest was born.

So here I am in Kuwait, running around the perimeter road after dark (when it’s still over 100 degrees), and actually enjoying it. Living in the refugee camp and working at the HQ being constantly bombarded with questions, the windblown perimeter at night is literally the only time I can be truly alone.

I look forward to my runs now, and I’m considering voluntarily running when I return home. This transformation concerns me for some reason – it doesn’t match with any facet of my personality, unlike all of my previous hobbies. Mrs. Melobi is similarly weirded out, about a similar transformation. I’m sure we’ll both integrate our new fitness routines smoothly; it’s not like we joined a cult or something. Still, I felt a serious unease when I walked out of the hooch for my run last night and realized that my shoes matched my shirt, I was wearing no socks, and I had dedicated running shorts on. Maybe it is some kind of cult after all…

The Tote Boat

Bags upon bagsThree more duffel bags and a footlocker (or tote) per man: that’s the load that arrived last night. The baggage was hotly anticipated, since most people loaded their stuff heavily with comfort items: civilian clothes, sheets & blankets, games, and other diversions. My bags were all half-empty, since everything I could think of to bring couldn’t fill them. Ignoring the brigade’s packing list also helped greatly; I figured it was nonsense when I saw our extreme cold-weather ensemble on the list. And as long as I’m ignoring one part of the list, might as well chuck the whole thing…Even still, all that crap needs to find a home, which isn’t a problem right now, but if the prophesied influx of soldiers really happens, we’re going to be damn near sleeping on piles of duffel bags.

Speaking of the exercise in human Tetris that is our building, the last two days have also been a flurry of reconfiguration, bracing for the arrival of newcomers. The neighbors expanded their space into the notional hallway, creating a weird vestibule at the entrance of our area that would be perfect for hanging raincoats – if only it ever rained. Meanwhile, the E-4 on the other side is somehow living alone, after the other three troops in his area abandoned him to establish a totally exposed shanty of their own, further down the hall. Their space seems a drastic downgrade; they’re basically living in the hallway, without even a poncho liner curtain to shield them from the rest of us, virtually piled on top of each other. It doesn’t bother me – they chose their arrangement – but it certainly puzzles me.

Essential war supplies

Essential war supplies

Meanwhile, my job at the HQ is quite pedestrian, and it (among many other factors) makes this feel less like a deployment and more like a year-long relocation to some branch office. I’m providing a basic first-tier help desk, the same kind of service provided in any corporate or public sector office anywhere in the world. (I hesitate to say that I “run” it, as the whole thing kind of shambles forward of its own accord, without much prompting by anyone.) It seems strange to fly across the world with piles of body armor and weapons and fire-resistant uniforms, just to help people figure out where to store PowerPoint files, but I guess that’s what they mean by “network-centric” warfare.

Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee

Zone 6 Refugee Camp

Zone 6 Refugee Camp

Our quarters are comfortable enough: a concrete building with two powerful air conditioners, a couple of wall lockers per man, and some overhead lights. As shown in the photo, everyone has put up makeshift curtains to achieve some measure of privacy; each area has two or three soldiers, with about as much space as a small (very small) dorm room.

This is fine, but we just received word that we’ll be doubling the number of men in the bay, which means top bunks will be occupied and everyone will be jostling for space, with as many as four guys per cubicle. I visited another building that was crowded, and it seemed horrible – a true third-world situation, with stuff everywhere and constant noise and junk everywhere and sheets strung to the ceiling.

The whole thing seems strange, since in Iraq seven years ago we had two man rooms that were much larger; now we’re living in some kind of bizarro-world early-war situation where we have to cram as many people as possible into each building. Meanwhile, the Air Force personnel on base are getting a monthly stipend (rumored to be as much as $1000 a month) since the living conditions aren’t up to their standards, and they’re only living twenty to a building – we’ll be packing in fifty.

Along with the ban on civilian clothes, the living arrangement falls into the category of “it doesn’t suck enough,” which seems to be some kind of guiding principle at the HQ. The ban, by the way, continues unabated, though there’s hope on the horizon since the Tote Boat allegedly came into port today. Maybe once the luggage arrives we can rejoin the rest of the camp in embracing our REMF status. Of course, when we get our stuff from the boat, that means another three duffel bags and one footlocker per person (!) that we have to store in our already-crowded bay…

Week One: Beige Planet

Welcome to the neighborhood

Welcome to the neighborhood

More than anything, I can’t get over how brown everything is. The heat is expected, both from experience and legend (140 degrees in the shade! etc.), but the beige is overwhelming. Maybe that’s why the Army switched to the ACUs: to give us some other color to look at, camouflage be damned. The ground, the sky, the buildings, the tents, the Navy uniforms (they’re wearing sharply starched DCUs here) – every damn thing is beige, tan, brown, and taupe. Even our wall lockers are tan! Couldn’t they have picked, you know, black, or gray, or something?

The heat, of course, is the other notable characteristic of the place. One hundred-twenty degrees Fahrenheit is beyond a feeling of “hot,” becoming an actual force, as if you can feel the photons and infrared radiation punching you in the back of the head from 93 million miles away. But unlike a miserable humid day in the US, you can accept the dry furnace-like heat with a shrug – at least it lets your sweat cool you as intended, even in the incredible heat.

As for the war here: we’re about as far in the rear as one can get and still be in a deployed status. Not that it’s a surprise, but it’s still odd to see people walking around in street clothes, sipping Frappucinos and standing in line to see the latest Harry Potter movie. Fast food is firmly entrenched, even more so than in Iraq years ago: KFC, Taco Bell, Burger King, Hardee’s, Pizza Hut, Subway…all available above and beyond the endless free food available at the dining facility, food that the workers sling with gusto in huge piles on your plate. The gyms are huge and well-appointed, and recreation buildings are festooned with flat-screen TVs, PS3s and Xboxes, pool, and foosball tables.

Civilian clothes were a welcome comfort – at least until our unit running the camp command cell complained that they didn’t bring any clothes, so why should we be allowed to wear any? The kibosh was quickly applied: no civvies until the CCC got their luggage from the shipping containers. (The same set of containers that has my box packed in April, as I wrote about previously.) The decision was mind-boggling; what did their status have anything to do with ours? The PX sells clothes, and one could get them sent from home; all that aside, what would the benefit be of the prohibition? I guess it’s that things don’t suck enough in their current state, so measures of increased suckitude must be applied. Hopefully the ban will be lifted soon, but it’s a worrying sign of irrationality so early in the mission, with the rest of the year stretching before us, hot and brown. No need to add any more discomfort or difficulty; events have a way of providing that on their own.

Heeding the Call

Last look at Wisconsin

Last look at Wisconsin

We boarded the charter flight at Volk Field on a drizzly evening, at the very same hangar in which I last stood six years ago, on the day I returned from Iraq. As the DC-10 taxied for take-off, we had to wait as another flight landed. The passengers were almost certainly members of our sister brigade, the 2nd BCT from Iowa, returning from Afghanistan. Crossing paths with them wasn’t unexpected; they had been arriving in waves for the last few weeks of our stay at Fort McCoy. Still, it was poetic, or cinematic, or dramatic somehow that our planes should literally pass on the tarmac, a closing credits montage rolling for one brigade and the opening credits rolling for another.

The first two legs of the trip were uneventful and vaguely uncomfortable, as airline flights always are: always too cold or too hot, not enough room to stretch despite being only 5’6″ and the plane being half-empty. We stopped in Ireland and had an unpleasant surprise: a security checkpoint, complete with emptying of pockets (of which soldiers have many) and stripping of belts & blouses. Thence it was into the controlled area of the terminal, where we mingled with French schoolgirls and American tourists and other travelers, like wayward souls temporarily slipped from the demon world. I felt disoriented after hours of flight and the time change; that combined with the sterile, windowless dungeon of the terminal and the sideways glances from the civilians made me feel like a wary animal on the way to the vet.

Underway again, we cruised over Iraq as the sun set, following the Tigris towards Kuwait. As night fell, the lights of the cities along the great river appeared like dim stars, clusters of blue-white strung out against the blackness below. It looked nothing like the orange blaze of America as seen from the air, but the lights were on nonetheless. An improvement, perhaps, from years past?

Landing in Kuwait, the TV screen inside the plane said the outside temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I knew it was true, but my mind rejected the number. My face couldn’t reject the reality, though, stepping outside into the night into a blast of hot air. If you didn’t know where the plane had landed, one would think that another aircraft was parked with its engines facing the door. Not so – just a summer night in the desert.

We boarded buses and drove for a couple of hours to a camp to check in to theater; by the time we arrived it was after 11pm local time. While we waited for check-in, we had to separate our baggage, since various groups on the flight were going to different camps. This entailed unloading two shipping containers (on the backs of trucks) worth of baggage in the dark, hot night, then organizing the stuff, then reloading everything onto the correct vehicles bound for each group’s respective camps. Somehow, no one got injured and nothing got lost in the operation, despite the onset of fatigue-induced delirium and flight-atrophied bodies.

Somehow (or perhaps inevitably), our little crew from the HQ (the most important group! the ones who planned the whole movement!) got lost in the shuffle and wound up with no ride to our final destination. Luckily, another crew was headed that way and had room, so we rode with them. Typically, field-grade officers and sergeants major don’t have to beg for rides anywhere, but no shit, there we were, scamming a lift from a subordinate unit. Naturally, though, we couldn’t just drive off – we had to await escort, which wasn’t scheduled to arrive until about 6:30 am. That was three hours away, so we did what everyone does upon arriving in a combat zone: we drove to Starbucks.

I expected a setup much like everywhere else: a ratty little trailer with a Starbucks sign on top, a place bearing only a passing resemblance to its namesake. Instead, it was like stepping through a dimensional portal to an actual human coffee shop, with all the accoutrements and decor of a stateside Starbucks. I watched, bewildered, as a guy ordered a giant whipped cream-topped coffee drink with an M-14 EBR slung over his shoulder. It was almost too much to handle: it’s four AM, I haven’t slept for twenty hours or more, I’m in Kuwait, and I’m in Starbucks with a bunch of dudes with rifles.

Outside, the day broke with no discernible sunrise, just a gradual turning of the sky from black to milky white, and we set off on the buses again, for another few hours of driving. Arriving at the camp, we were dropped at our living area, got our bags from the truck, and began our first day with little fanfare or even orientation. Here you go, welcome to Kuwait – now figure it out!

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