Sunday, December 23, 2007

Down under and back

I’m back in Taji now, ready to serve out the rest of my time. If the way I write the previous sentence raises any eyebrows, it was not by accident or a poor choice of words. Regardless, my 16-day R&R left me recharged and ready to tackle my 4 remaining months here. I got word that my unit is leaving Taji at the end of April, so I expect to return to the U.S. in early May.

I had such a good time on the second half of my Australian trip that it’s difficult to write about it without feeling a bit of premature nostalgia. On this blog, I think I left off at the part of my trip when I was about to go SCUBA diving in northern Queensland. I did a 4 day PADI open water certification course, which consisted of 2 days in the classroom and pool and 2 days out at the Great Barrier Reef. Alex and I were in a 3 person class with an American girl from Chicago. The classes are normally a lot larger than 3 people so we basically had individual instruction. Our instructor was a British guy, a bit younger than me, named Uli.He had had enough of the corporate rat race in London and left for Australia to do something he really cared for. At the end of our 4 days, Alex and I shared a secret jealousy of him. I was originally skeptical about spending 2 days of our vacation inside a classroom and pool, but it was worth it. There was a lot too learn and a few things to make sure we could accomplish underwater before trying it out for real in the ocean. The reef was amazing, with all the coral, giant clams, sea cucumbers, and odd fish I’d never seen before. I’d snorkeled on reefs before, most recently in the Red Sea, but nothing compares to actually getting deep down in the water. I’d recommend it to anyone. Even if you get seasick like me, as those of you who saw me on the infamous 3-hour Kennedy School whale watching trip barf-a-thon know, take some Dramamine. You’ll also feel so much better when you jump in the water.While Alex decided to an extra day and a half of scuba diving, I went along with my original plan to rent a car and drive up and down the coast to see the beaches and rainforest I’d read so much about. It was at first extremely odd to be driving on the left side of the road in a car with the steering wheel on the right side, but I got used to it. I'm now even an expert on Queensland traffic law, having been pulled over for doing 100 km/hr in a 80 km/hr zone near Cairns by a policeman who looked about my age. I played the dumb tourist role rather nicely, and the policeman let me off the hook with a warning not to speed on my “holiday,” lest I want to give up 300 Australian dollars. His leniency was representative of the especially pleasant and welcoming attitude we saw in all the Australians we interacted with. After this incident, I made it to the rainforest areas of the Daintree National Forest and went on some hikes through the jungle. I swam in crystal-clear river pools and also visited virtually empty tropical beaches. I unfortunately couldn’t swim in the ocean water because of the box jellyfish that infest the shallow waters in the Australian summer.

Cape Tribulation

After our time in Queensland, we flew down to Melbourne to spend about 5 days checking out the city and its environs, namely the Great Ocean Road. We rented a car and drove along this famous stretch of 2 lane road stretching west from the city’s western suburbs. According to the two travel guide books I had with me, it’s one of the world’s most scenic drives. I thought that the drive certainly lived up to its reputation. The beaches that skirt this famous road are known among surfers worldwide for their amazing breaks. I learned that the ending scene of Point Break was filmed there.

The Twelve Apostles, Great Ocean Road

The road also served up a great opportunity to see some koalas in the wild. Right off the windy road, we saw about 15 of them just sitting up in the eucalyptus trees sleeping and eating. Although I liked Sydney’s scenery a lot more, Alex and I enjoyed Melbourne’s nightlife more. They say that Melbourne is more like a European city than Sydney, and I definitely saw that.

Melbourne skyline

I hope everyone has a nice Christmas and New Years!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Down Under

Ahh, R&R. Soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan get the opportunity to take a 15 day vacation during their deployment. Most soldiers choose to go back to the US, but I wanted to use the break to visit a place I’d never been before: Australia. Theoretically, I could have gone anywhere in the world—even a place as obscure as Greenland. The soldier simply names the destination and the Army pays for the round trip civilian flight. I convinced my friend Alex to come with me. He’d never been to Australia before either.

There is a catch though—getting out of Iraq is not easy. The plan is for you to get to Balad, then Kuwait, then Germany if you’re going back to the US. Because I’m stationed at Taji, which doesn’t have a runway suitable for larger fixed-wing aircraft like the C-130 or C-17, I first had to fly to Balad via helicopter. We were supposed to fly out of Taji on November 20th but ended up leaving on the 22nd because of cancelled flights. The unfortunate combination of bad weather and higher-priority emergency leaves kept delaying us. There was one instance when we were about 50 yards from a Blackhawk helicopter when the crew chief came out and said he only had room for one more. We didn’t want to split up (how cute), so we opted for a chance at a later flight. Finally, after two days of waiting and wondering, we left beautiful Taji and arrived in Balad. Balad turned out to be a more organized disaster, with us mostly lying around on the airport terminal floor for 15 hours trying to get some sleep. After a nice Thanksgiving meal, we caught a flight to Kuwait. At Kuwait, we in-processed for R&R and were assigned a temporary tent until our flight to Dubia/Sydney the next day. I’m not really in any danger at all on Camp Taji, but it still felt good to be out of Iraq. It must be a big relief to the soldiers who have to go out on the roads in Iraq to finally be out of danger. I overheard one homeward-bound soldier in my tent showing his friend his purple heart and the wound in his leg that got him the “award.”

Next, we flew out of Kuwait City airport the next night on Emirates via Dubai to Sydney on a 15-hour flight. The longest flight I had ever been on was the 7 or 8-hour New York to Frankfurt so the Kuwait-Sydney long haul was definitely a test of patience for me. Luckily, Emirates is a great airline with outstanding food, good leg room, and a lot of things to keep you busy. Each seat had a personal TV with all the newer movies that just came out on DVDs.

I call Dubai the Star Wars bar. At a crossroads of Asia and the Middle East, Dubai is rapidly becoming one of the region’s most important cities. This attracts travelers and businessmen from all over the world. You see Indian men with turbans, Africans in traditional dress, Russians on vacation, Fillipino workers, Arabs in white robes, and Germans on their way to wherever. In short, a layover in Dubai is a bit more interesting than a stop in Pittsburgh.

Sydney: I’ve been to about 30 countries in my life and can say with confidence that Sydney is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Its summer here now so the weather was warm and sunny almost every day we were there. The city is right on the harbor so we got around on ferries to different parts of the city. Got to see the iconic Sydney Opera House with the Sydney skyline in the background. Went to the Taronga zoo and got up close with a koala. Walked through the botanical gardens and saw probably one hundred different trees I’d never seen before. Sydney’s residents are beautiful, in shape, young. Our necks are sore from checking out all the female scenery that is to be seen here. Bondi beach was awesome too. I went swimming there for an hour or two and saw some surfers impressively handling some nice waves.
Sydney Harbor
Sydney Harbor
Sydney Opera House
Me and a koala
Cairns: Today we flew up to Cairns, the major gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Australia is about as big as the US, so the flight from Sydney to Cairns covers roughly the same distance as New York to Miami. It feels very South Pacific here, with the humid temperature, turquoise water, and lush rainforest mountains surrounding the city. Had some kangaroo, emu, and crocodile meat today. We enrolled in a SCUBA certfication course so thats what I'll be doing for the next 4 days. We had our first day today and I really liked it. Can't wait to get out on the Reef to see some cool stuff. Next we're off to Melbourne.
Hope everyone is doing well!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Crimes and Misdemeanors

After another good meal the at the Taji DFAC, I walked outside with my friends Alex and Dave to discover that my bike was stolen from the bike rack I left it in. I didn’t lock it up before going into the mess hall because I had left it out there every night for the last few weeks and no one messed with it. That night was the first night I went to dinner a little late, when it was already dark, and the thief took advantage of the darkness. The bike only cost me $20 second hand from another soldier, so it certainly wasn’t a financial disaster. But I was angry both with the thief and with myself because my mother had just sent me a bike lock to use. Shrugging it off, I walked back to work and was then made the butt of several jokes amongst my fellow officers.

The same night, my spirits were lifted by the delivery of two care packages—one from my father and another from my Uncle’s friend at Unilever. Since I didn’t want to carry them the half mile back to my barracks, I decided to drop them off using our beat-up old John Deere Gator utility vehicle. I brought the two boxes out to the Gator, absentmindedly dropped them in the open bed in the back, and began fumbling in the dark with the lock on the steering wheel. I drove back to the barracks, got out of the vehicle to get my two boxes, but realized that there was only one box in the back! One must have fallen out. Oh, no. I immediately retraced my path, keeping an eye out for a cardboard box lying around in the dirt, but found none. How could this have happened? It must have fallen out on one of the many sand bag speed bumps or on a sharp turn I made. Having confidence that someone must have seen the box in the 2 minutes I was gone and picked it up in a good natured gesture to later return to me, I wrote the box off as lost only for the night.

One week later, I still have not seen my Dad’s care-package. The pretzels and cookies in it are probably long gone, having found their way through some other soldier’s digestive track. If all of this dishonesty in one night seems improbable, I’ll give the soldiers on Taji the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Explosive Ordnance Disposal found the box, considered it a suspicious package, and blew the thing to bits? But having not seen any singed wet wipes, cookie crumbs, or pieces of the Bergen Record newspaper laying anywhere along route I took that night, I have to admit that the suspicious package explosion thing probably didn’t happen. In the meantime, I hope that the unhealthy cookies cause a serious bout of digestive complications for the person(s) who took my box, and perhaps contribute in a small way to the growth of a second chin.

After having spent a day checking out every bike that I saw (Taji isn’t that big, after all) and eyeing all bike riders as possible suspects, I went to dinner with my friends. On my way in to the mess hall, I took a quick look at the bikes in the rack. One on the right side was the same shape and style as mine; only it was spray-painted completely white. Upon closer inspection, I blurted out to my friends, “This is my bike.” I spent the next few minutes noticing all the identical features, including the Krypton headlight I recently installed, the identical brand name, blue color (underneath the shoddy spray paint job), helmet, gear shifter stuck in one gear, seat tilted too high upward in the front, etc. I could also see spray paint marks on the tires, indicating that the spray job was very recent. It was my bike. I couldn’t believe it. I waited outside at a distance for a while to confront the person who might lay claim to the bike but no one walked over to it. I was hungry so I brought the bike to the mess hall’s guard shack to have the guards look after it while I ate, so the thief may have walked out and saw the bike missing and took off. The sheer stupidity of placing the bike in the same rack with such a shoddy paint job leads me to believe that the person either 1) slept on it and reconsidered what a dumb idea it was to steal a bike on an Army base, 2) found out it was a bad bike (the brakes stink and the gears don’t shift), or 3) felt bad about it and left it in the same rack for me to find on my way to dinner. Either way, I sleep here at Camp Taji with the knowledge that a share with this base with at least one moron.

Here is what my bike looks like now. I acutally kinda like the new color scheme. Thanks man!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

At the DFAC

Since nothing much is going on, I decided to write about what us Taji-confined soldiers truly cherish most: the Dining Facility (DFAC, Armyspeak for mess hall). Conveniently situated only one mile from our living area, the DFAC is well worth the trudge through the heat, dusty parking lots, and PortaPotty-induced olfactory horrors that make Camp Taji the wonderful place I already know it to be.

I spend about 2 hours a day at the mess hall so I wanted to write a little bit about it. The Taji DFAC looks nothing like the stereotypical mess hall. It is well-lit, clean, offers a great selection of foods, and is run by civilian contractors. I have to hand it to Gulf Catering, the contractor who runs our mess hall. Their dozens of Indian servers do a really good job and are very nice to us troops coming through the lines. On the days the DFAC serves chicken or beef curry, you’ll see a line of Indian workers wrapped around the side of the mess hall. That’s how I know its good curry. Their company is a subcontractor for KBR, which is a subsidiary of Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s old firm. Evidently, our Vice President is very good at contracting things out, just as he contracted out his responsibility to serve in the Vietnam War to less fortunate Americans by obtaining five draft deferments.

At breakfast, I am put in the enviable position of deciding amongst a made-to-order omelet, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hash browns, grits, French toast, pancakes, and oatmeal. Just when I think I’ve seen enough food to last me all day, there is the cereal table. Alongside the blander Cheerios and Special K boxes are the more decadent cereals like Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms, and Cocoa Puffs, treats my Mom never let me touch. Because she is now 10,000 miles away, I’m already starting to put on a little weight, something I thought was not possible due to my naturally high metabolism. Oh well, I have a lot of time to work it off before returning to the States next spring.

Lunch and dinner feature more of the same, but even go more overboard in terms of the variety of foods served. Overboard is nice, but I have to ask myself how much KBR charges the U.S. Government for a soldier to eat a meal here. That issue being way above my level as a lowly Battalion Logistics Officer, I instead focus on only what I throw on my plate. For lunch, I can get a sandwich, soup, burgers, hot dog, cheese steak, salad, pizza, tacos, rice, mashed potatoes, fruit, and just about any other basic sort of food. Dinner is equally good. We even get crab legs on Sunday, although the shells are dangerously sharp. Probably the most dangerous thing I do all week, breaking up crab legs in a hostile fire zone is not a task I take lightly.

A recent lunch at the DFAC: no, those aren't worms on the steak. They're onions.
Side note: I’ll be going to Australia with my friend Alex in late November for a two week R&R. I decided to take my vacation early this time around. Let me know if you’ll be in Sydney around Thanksgiving time!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Settling in

I read all of your responses and agree that I should keep on writing. I understand that it’s important to read a first hand account of what many soldiers go through on a daily basis here. Plus, I enjoy writing and it’s a good way to communicate with my family and friends.

My unit is responsible for manning several guard towers and entry control points around Camp Taji. We haven’t had any incidents yet, except for the other day when some gunfire (I think celebratory) hit near one of our towers. Camp Taji has been really quiet so far. The outgoing force protection officer said that the area around this base use to be really violent. Mortar and rocket attacks were a common occurrence up until a month ago.

Our guard towers are now made of concrete and bulletproof glass, so our soldiers are pretty safe on their shifts and still able to fire their weapons out when they need to. Only a few months ago, the towers were made of just steel and wood. The unit we replaced had a female soldier severely wounded by shrapnel from an RPG blast and another soldier sniped from a high-powered rifle. The bullet grazed his ear, miraculously went in his helmet on one side, curved around the inside back of his helmet, and exited the other side.

The main highway in Iraq, MSR (main supply route) Tampa, skirts the western wall of our base and is probably the most dangerous road in the world. I live about 300 yards from this road and can see the tops of the trucks driving by at all hours of the day. I used to drive on MSR Tampa back in 2003 with no body armor and no armor on my Humvee. Times have definitely changed. Although the portion of MSR Tampa near Camp Taji has been safe this month, there are still incidents. Two months ago, an American ASV (the vehicle in the above picture) ran over a pressure plate mine on the highway only 30 yards from one of the guard towers. Despite the mine’s small charge, the explosion was powerful enough to flip the ASV over. Almost immediately, the vehicle caught fire and the soldiers inside got trapped and were burned to death. The soldiers in the nearest guard tower inside the base perimeter had to stand helplessly by as the soldiers screamed in agony. My friend who went out to assist said he is still haunted by the sound of those soldiers dying.

We’ve been busy over the last few days improving our buildings and surrounding areas. Our new headquarters building was an empty shell when we got here so we have our work cut out for us. As the logistics officer, I’m setting up some contracts for things such as gravel, vehicles, blast walls, copiers, and printers. The work keeps me busy and allows me to meet a lot of different people on the base, from 1st Cavalry Division guys to KBR (Kellog Brown and Root) to Iraqis who come into our base to sell items that the Army needs.

Hope you all enjoyed the update. I'll write more when I get a chance.

Monday, September 24, 2007

In Taji

I’m now settled into my new home-away-from-home, Taji. It’s another huge American base about 10 miles north of the Green Zone in Baghdad. Getting here on a nighttime helicopter mission was a little nerve racking though. I’m pretty sure that we came under small arms attack. I saw four or five intermittent flashes of light suddenly appear from this city we were flying over. The helicopter crew let out flares and got ready use their weapons but we were soon out of the danger area and really high up before anything could happen. That’s probably the only excitement I’m going to have during the nine or so months I’m here.

I can’t really write about what my unit exactly does here on Taji but I can say that it has to do with defending the base. That’s means as the unit’s logistics officer, I’m most likely never going to leave my Forward Operating Base (FOB). The Army has a term for those soldiers who never leave the FOB: fobbits.

Initially I was disappointed when I learned that I would be a fobbit on Camp Taji for 9 months, but I’d rather just do my time and come home safely. Being an IED magnet doesn’t seem too appealing to me right now, especially for a war started under dubious circumstances. This war is not worth the life or limb of one more American soldier. Anyone who tells you otherwise should be asked to enlist and fight in the war himself.

I’ll just have to stay busy with work and keep my eyes away from the calendar. I don’t expect much to happen while I’m here so I’m not going to update this blog unless something of note occurs. Sorry to let anyone down, but it’ll be tough to keep this interesting if I’m doing the same thing day in and day out, like the movie Groundhog Day.

Thanks for all of your support during my deployment. It means a lot to me. I’ll see you when I get home once and for all!

Here are a few pictures of where I live: