Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dinner at the Palace

Yes, it sounded rather high class to me also. I worried that I might be slightly under-dressed in the jeans I'd been wearing for the last 4 days, but my last clean t-shirt should make up for it.

The former Presidential Palace of Saddam Hussein now serves as the U.S. Embassy compound. We, a reporter and a photographer from Army Times, a writer from Time magazine, and myself, were driven through the International Zone to have dinner at the embassy dining facility. Once there, we meet with Col. Steven Boylan, the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) for Gen. David Patreaus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. I had met Col. Boylan at a convention in Chicago last October, and he actually started the ball rolling on this embed by giving me contact information for the right people.

The chow hall is nice, but nothing extravagant, it is on par with the dining facilities the troops are eating at in Kuwait. The Palace however is fairly glitzy in a dictatorial way. A mural of scud missiles painted on the wall points towards Israel, an overt sign of Saddam's feelings, and possible intentions. He did in fact, launch scuds against Israel in the first Gulf War.

Over dinner we talked of some of the stories of the day. There was some disagreement between the people from the Army Times, and the military policy of not showing identifiable pictures of wounded soldiers without their permission. As for myself, I think it's a logical policy, and as Col. Boylan stated "what news value is gained" buy showing a wounded soldiers face. The Colonel had to leave to do an interview, so we finished dinner and were escorted back the the press center.

The CPIC is located inside the "Green Zone" a walled in and well guarded compound right in the center of Baghdad. I have been impressed, as have the Americans stationed here, by the professionalism and thoroughness of the troops now guarding the zone. These troops are members of the Peruvian Army, I wasn't aware that Peru even deployed troops overseas. So much for the U.S. "going it alone" I guess. They are small in stature, friendly, and pretty good at what they do.

It was recently announced that a new offensive has started in the areas surrounding Baghdad. This large scale effort is going after Al Qieda gunmen in places they have long thought of as safe. Rather than fly back to Kuwait and then fly back up to Iraq, I have requested to do a short embed with units engaged in this offensive. I will link up with my original embed unit, A Co. 2/504th, when they arrive in Iraq. Hopefully I will know more shortly.
Sorry, no photos inside the green zone for security reasons, please check my links at right for more photos.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Day Trip

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sitting in the belly of a C-130, when the Air Force Load master dons his helmet and body armor, its a good sign that you're getting close. You pull on your vest, snap your chin strap, and have just a wee, fleeting thought of someone having gotten a hold of a Stinger, Red-eye, or SA-7 Grail.
The pilot starts his "jinking" maneuvers, radical movements and changes in speed, anything to avoid making the lumbering , propeller driven cargo bird an easy target. As evasive flying goes, this was pretty tame, either that, or when I used to jump out of these things the Air Force guys just liked to see if they could make Rangers vomit. Nothing happens! And it rarely does, you would think that if Baghdad was "that bad", there wouldn't be round the clock flights landing here. We set down a little rough, and I was reminded of what it's like to land in a "Herc". It feels like you've landed on the planes belly and are skidding down the runway on you ass.
Yes, I'm in Baghdad. I've made this trip ahead of my embed unit so that I can receive my credentials from the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC). Arriving at my temporary quarters around 0400, I get situated and catch a few hours of much needed sleep, the first on an actual mattress in about a week. I hope I don't lose the sleep callousness I was beginning to re-build with Alpha Company, this is part of why the Infantry is a young man's game.

Finally, solid inter-net access and connection! I will take this opportunity to get some work done, i.e. posting pictures to WPN and DPP (links at right), and of course, to post here. For the families of the men of the 2/504th, I should be returning to the unit soon, and will keep you updated. More from Baghdad shortly.

Training to counter a threat

14 June 2007
Today I had the opportunity to accompany 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company as they went through a five mile exercise designed to introduce them to some of the things they may, and will, encounter on their deployment. The training was started off well, but as they progressed the platoon triggered a mock Improvised Explosive Device commonly called an IED. IED’s are the single greatest cause of American casualties in Iraq and have been so for quite some time. To counter this threat the military puts soldiers deploying to Iraq, and whose mission may dictate the need, through a 3 day course of classroom, rehearsal, and live mission training.
As was stated, 3rd platoon started off well, but after losing two vehicles and taking 4 “casualties”, the company commander, who was observing, brought the platoon back to the start point. After receiving a short critique, and allowing the soldiers to re-think some of their strategies, 3rd was put back in the rotation which meant a long, hot, five hour wait in the 120 degree Kuwaiti sun. This may seem harsh, but as the company 1st Sergeant, (1SG), pointed out, on missions these troops may be called upon to secure an area with IED’s requiring them to stay in the sun for even longer periods.
When again the unit mounted up, the men were hot, and a bit drained, but donned their 40 plus pounds of body armor and at least another 20 lbs. in ammo and miscellaneous equipment. Even with this load and the blast-furnace like heat, this time, they completed the entire course with no losses.

Arabic role players populated the course to give it a realistic feel, and to act out situations that the soldiers may run into "up north". The methods of training will not be discussed for op-sec reasons, but know that the men and women here are being given the tools needed to counter the enemy. In a war-zone, “safe” is a relative term, but with training such as this, hopefully these Paratroopers will be that much safer as they accomplish their mission.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sunny Kuwait

Sorry for the delay, but with travel, paperwork, and limited internet access I am just now able to post. I will include here two posts that were written while waiting to leave the states, and first arrival in Kuwait. I hope to post at least every other day from here, but training and access will dictate. Please read these last two posts, and I'll have more for you tomorrow.

9 June 07
The faces stare back at me from the 20x24 photographs on the wall. The pictures were taken over 60 years ago, paratroopers on the way to another war, but the faces could just as easily be those of the young men headed to this war.
I am sitting on the cool tile floor of the headquarters of the 2nd Bn. 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (2/504 PIR) at Ft. Bragg. The unit, known as the “White Devil’s” is gone, and I will join them shortly, meanwhile I spend these last few hours passing along some observations to my readers.
For the un-initiated, a “unit” such as a battalion, regiment or division, is an immortal entity. It is constantly infused with fresh blood in the form of new soldiers arriving to add their own chapter to it’s life. The walls of this building are adorned with the photos and trophies from past conflicts this battalion has been engaged in. Bunting draped over galleries commemorating WW II, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan gives them a hallowed feeling. Next year, after a long , hot deployment, the “Iraq” section of wall will be added to with photos and mementos, and will serve as a reminder to future “White Devil’s” of their units proud history As a unit lives on, each member who serves gains a small bit of immortality also.
Headed “down range”, next post will be in theatre.

12 June 2007,
After a long trip, mine was a bit longer due to media requirements, we are in the dessert of Kuwait. My unit arrived without incident earlier this week, and have begun their training and preparations for future missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. From time to time I will repeat that I will only describe certain things in generalities for the sake of operational security.
I will try and describe as vividly as possibly the conditions here and how the men and women deployed here live.
We’ll start with the obvious, it’s HOT! I don’t mean Chicago in the summer, which is bad enough, I mean it is like a blast furnace as the breeze hits you. Its difficult to decide if the breeze is good or bad, on the one hand its at least moving the air, on the other, it whips up the sand and dust that fill your nose and mouth. Heat your oven to about 300 degrees, then open it and put your face in close so the waves hit you, that is what the breeze feels like in Kuwait.
However, in the evening and early morning, the heat is tolerable, settling in the upper 80’s or low 90’s. Many soldiers get their morning run in to take advantage of the relative “cool” at that time of day.
To go along with the heat, you have the extremely important task of constantly hydrating. The service men and women here have no shortage of bottled water, there are stockpiles in every building and at points through out this post. Boxes of gatorade packets are in the living quarters of the troops in case they tire of plain water.
As for food, I don’t remember anything like this when I was in the Army! The food is very good, both in quality and quantity. Fresh fruits and vegetables, salad bars, ice cream, and just about anything else you could want.
Living quarters are large rubberized tents with a rigid frame making them semi-permanent. The men sleep on cots with their gear arrayed around them. Its somewhat crowded, but comfortable enough as there are three large air-conditioners to keep it cool.
I took a walk around, until the heat told me to head in, and it seems like the troops are very well taken care of here. On my tour, I saw something that made me laugh,, and shake my head, a Starbucks here, in the middle of the dessert! Well…….that’s all I’ll say on that.
All in all, not a bad place to be in a time of war, but it’s still not home.

Friday, June 8, 2007

A Straight Shooter

Sometimes you see someone at their job, and you're thankful that person is there. That's the feeling I came away with this morning after sitting in on a breakfast question and answer session at Ft. Bragg.
General Richard Cody, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, sat down with a few dozen Officers and NCO's at a post dining facility (DFAC). The General spoke in a down-to-earth, soldierly manner to men who have a personal knowledge of this war. He told them the reasons certain things were being done, and why specific policies were made at higher levels. He spoke of his feelings on those things, and what he expected of the men seated around him. In addition, he told the men of things that he wanted to implement in order to help soldiers, and make the burden on them and their families easier to bare. I won't go into detail, because when a four-star says "it stays in this room", well, it stays in that room.
I can give you my personal observations though, which is what this blog was intended to do. That said, this is the type of man that you would want your sons and daughters to serve under. Intelligent, professional, caring, dedicated, and above all, concerned with the welfare of the soldiers of the U.S. Army. I wish the regular media would do candid interviews with leaders such as General Cody, it might change some attitudes on the handling of this war.
When breakfast was over, the General shook each soldiers hand, gave them a commemorative coin, and wished them luck.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Down to the Airfield

As you went about your daily life yesterday, a group of young American soldiers prepared to head to war to ensure the safety and security of this country and it's people......you.

Many of them have been to war before, in Afghanistan or Iraq, some several times, and in both places. These are the faces of the men that make the sacrifices, and have this as their daily lives.

Throughout the day long process of drawing weapons, closing out barracks, and loading bags and baggage, the men of Alpha Company seemed upbeat, and some were actually excited. One Paratroopers tattoo read "Kill Switch" with the switch set in the on position.

As with all military operations, there is wait-time. The Paratroopers passed this time eating that last fast food meal for a while, tossing a football around, or catching some sleep in the hot North Carolina sun. Boxes of ice cream sandwiches were brought out and passed around. The old soldier stand-by, cigarettes, came out, as well as some new forms of relaxation, game-boys and iPods. The young men of today's Army enjoy the same technical toys that the kids in college do, the difference is that they are headed to something far more real than a video game.

Packed on buses, the soldiers are taken to the airfield for their "weigh-in". A semi-truck scale serves to weigh the men and their gear, and yes, the civilian employees make these men, headed to war, put their carry-on bags into wooden boxes to ensure they will fit in the overhead compartments.

The last stop before a year long odyssey is the hanger at "green ramp". Here last details are taken care of. Married soldiers fill out paperwork to ensure their families get the proper pay and benefits while they are deployed.

Gathering the men together, the 2/504th's battalion Chaplain, 1LT. Jeff Smith offers a blessing for the safety of the men. He reminds them that it has fallen unto them to bear the burden of this war, something that is known very well here.

Finally, the last meal on American soil for quite some time. The men are informed that there will be no meal in-flight, so eat accordingly. The fare is standard Army chow on styrofoam plates.

Next stop.........for operational security, I will not divulge certain information until it has been cleared with the unit. Please don't ask where they are or other specifics. As happens in the military, my departure has been postponed for a short while. In the mean time, I will be posting from, and shooting at Ft. Bragg until my flight leaves.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Paddy's Pub

So........I pull into a parking lot to do a map check, looking for a place to have a few pints, when, through the trees, like a sign from above, glares the green and white beacon "Paddy's". Well, like a moth to the flame. I was looking for a well known night spot, but like a magnet, I'm drawn to "my people"!
It could have been any neighborhood Irish bar on the "Southside", short-haired young guys, baseball caps on, 2 man acoustic band playing sing-along songs with NC17 lyrics, yeah, this could be home. But its not. These young men are at war. This is America in 1943. Nothing showed this more than the when, at midnight, the entire bar raised their drinks and sang "The Star Spangled Banner".
These young soldiers know the deal. They are they ones, along with their families, who make the sacrifices in this war, and you'd be hard pressed to find one among them that questions this country's need to fight and to win.
When I see old men in their 70's or 80's, I envision them as young men, serving their country in WWII or Korea, and show them the proper respect. These days, look around you, some of the young faces you see everyday may have seen and done things for your safety and freedom that you'll never know about. You can usually tell vets by the way they carry themselves, if you get the chance, tell them thanks.
I'll close for now, and say thanks to my New York and Alabama Vet brothers at "Smokin' Guns" Tattooing, good sharing some pints with ya', and thanks for your service.