Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ready & Forward: Going on patrol with 10 Cav and getting lost again (My report from Iraq, Pt 9)

(Photos are of an abandoned photograph of an unnamed graduating class, some places we visited on patrol, Admiral Jawad, the Great Wall of Baghdad, my room with the 10 Cav Buffalo Soldiers whose motto is "Ready and Forward," Alex the gunner and some chai.)

It's showtime again. Today me and a 10 Cav platoon from JSS Karbdegla are going out to a COP (combat outpost) in Saha to join up with another platoon and then we're going to hang out on the main market street in Abu D'Shir.

"How can you spend time with those murderers and then actually write nice things about them?" someone e-mailed me today, referring to American soldiers.

"As far as I can tell after actually being here," I replied, "the situation now just isn't like that. But that's why I'm over here -- to find out what it's really like in Iraq. And what I have discovered so far is that most Army guys have honor, have character, are idealists like us. Honest. They really are." But the US military is being used and abused by the corporatists in Washington -- just like most of the rest of America is. But. The big test lie ahead for the US military (and of course for the American people as well.) If the Bush/McCain/corporatists once again send our "cavalry" off to fight in yet another unjust war -- one of a long series of unjust wars that have been stirred up by those who ahave discovered that their profits sky-rocket in time of war -- and then the "cavalry" goes along with the plan....

The main test of our soldiers' idealism, character and honor will be if our military once again blindly follows the corporatists' orders with out doing their research. If Bush or Cheney or McCain orders our military to attack Iran...or Venezuela...or Russia...or San Francisco, where will these honorable men and women draw the line?

Now we're driving past miles and miles of blast walls again. There must be a million blast walls in Baghdad. It's like visiting the Great Wall of Iraq. Where the freak do they get all that cement?

Then we arrived at the COP, constructed out of three or four former McMansions that used to belong to mid-level bureaucrats in Saddam's government. It is the usual combination of Army kitch and Iraqi-ness. And the person in charge of first aid here checked out my bug bite and gave me some hydrocortizone cream. "Come back if it starts abscessing," he said.

"Do you think it was a spider bite?" I asked. A tarantula? A scorpion? A three-horned alien? Hey, this is Iraq. Anything's possible.

While we were waiting around the COP for the patrol to begin, I checked my e-mail. "Mom, I'm having a mini-breakdown," wrote my daughter Ashley. "I miss you! Plus I have a bug." What kind of a bug? A scorpion? A tarantula?

Now it's time to hurry up and wait. We're supposed to go out to the markets but today nobody seems to be in any hurry. Me neither -- except that I need to catch a helicopter to the Green Zone at 3:00 pm. So we sat around and talked about the Olympic games -- they are on every TV screen all of the time here -- and where soldiers would go during their leave. Mostly they would be doing family stuff like taking the kids to Disneyland. A lot of these guys are family men. Rats. I can't find any recruits to come home and marry my daughter.

Then we popped into an MRAP. "Hi. I'm Alex. I'll be your gunner for today."

Alex used to be a punk with a Mohawk. Now he is a family man. He showed me a photo of his daughter. Total cuteness! "She'll be one year old pretty soon. I've only seen her for a total of 25 days." Again and again I keep hearing about how hard it is to be separated from family for at least six months at a time. Another guy I talked with had five children. Another one had three. Someone else told me that his divorce papers had just come through.

I just realized that for the past four days, I'm one of the only women I've talked to. There was a physicians' assistant at the JSS and that's about it. She was a Stanford graduate but don't tell no one form Berkeley that I wore my red Stanford T-shirt today just for her. But the strange thing about living without women is that one doesn't miss them. Don't tell nobody I said that either.

"You hungry?" asked the gunner. I'm always hungry. So the MRAP went over to the drive-through at Camp Falcon and we got chicken, french fries and Gatorade.

Then we rolled over to Abu D'Shir -- Shia territory. "How can you tell?"

"See those images of the Prophet's grandson Ali painted on the walls? That's how."

First we stopped by a doctor's home to give him a mini-grant. "I need some new stethoscopes and a blood pressure machine."

"How is healthcare in Iraq?"

"Expensive." Apparently, the private hospitals here are good but cost a lot more than the state-sponsored ones. This doctor volunteers in a clinic every morning and then sees five to ten private patients in the afternoons. His wife served us chai. I love Iraqi chai!

"Did you go to the university?" we asked the doctor's oldest son.

"No. I couldn't afford to. I had to drop out and work. None of my family will be able to afford to go to university." I wish we could give scholarships and mini-grants out to students as well as to small businesses.

What do I mean "we"? It turns out I was wrong about this money coming from America. The mini-grant money we give out comes from the Iraqi government. "Why is that?"

"I think it's because Iraqis trust us to be impartial," a soldier replied.

After the doctor's wife served us chai, we met the rest of the family and then went on to the next task -- giving a mini-grant to a man who ran a carpentry shop.

Then someone from COP Comanche came to pick me up from downtown Abu D'shir and haul me off to meet my helicopter ride up to the Green Zone.

"I want to tell you why I'm here," said the officer from COP Comanche. "We were out on patrol in our battle area back at the height of the violence when a smiling young girl came over and stood next to me. 'Why are you smiling,' I asked her and she answered, 'Because I know that for the next 20 minutes I will be safe.' That really got to me. And also around that time we were looking through an abandoned home and found an old-fashioned family portrait lying in the dust. And later that day we found a mass grave for that entire family, buried in their own front yard."

I sort of shivered. While prowling through an abandoned house the other day, I too had found a photograph of what looked like a class photo from some university graduation ceremony. I wonder how many people in that photo are now dead, killed in this war.

Back at the 10 Cav JSS, everyone came to say goodbye to me at the landing zone and I left on the chopper. "I miss you guys already," I cried. Then we flew off to the Green Zone but guess what? I swear that, while totally strapped into a freaking helicopter driven by experienced pilots, I STILL managed to get lost!

When the helicopter landed, I got out, waved to the pilot and mouthed "Thanks!" over the rotor-blade noise. Then I walked off to the terminal. "Welcome to Camp Liberty," said the flagman. Camp Liberty? What?

And this is the reason that I'm now sitting at Camp Stryker at 2:00 in the freaking morning waiting for the freaking Rhino to drive me across Baghdad in an armed convoy in the dead of night instead of being happily tucked into my soft little bed in the Green Zone right now. Am I pissed off? You cannot even begin to imagine. The freaking helicopter guy put me off at the wrong stop.

So here I am, red-eyed and freaked out, sitting around the Army equivalent of a Greyhound bus station, trying to stay awake by playing about a hundred games of solitaire.

I'm too old for this.