By Reggie Cruz
Good morning! It’s a cool Thanksgiving start here in Baghdad. I’ve been here 3 months to the day and it’s my first day off. No meetings, no movements, no gunfire or alarms and rockets to shake the ground (so far, to be fair it’s only 8am >:D). Thanksgiving day. A day off. Finally.
Haha, breakfast ended at 8am and I’m just getting out of bed. Stayed up late last night folding laundry and watching “The Messenger” starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. A good movie. Today will be a day of food, video games, movies, sleep, and maybe a workout. My stomach’s complaining right now, but it shouldn’t be. I fed it Ritz crackers, squid in ink sauce, chocolate cake and milk before going to bed. I’m going to need a cigarette to hold me over until lunch…
I pull my ACU (Army Combat Uniform, why didn’t they let me bring my Navy blue cammie uniforms?) coat over my pajamas of t-shirt and plaid cotton shorts. Cig in my mouth I open the door to the porch. Dust and cold dry air greet me today. Dust and sand. The vision out here is always of a constant faded tan. The buildings, the dirt, the road, the barrier walls. Faded tan. The camp seems to still be enjoying the morning to sleep in. Only the sounds of the birds can be heard, with the occasional heavy armored vehicle rumbling down the road. Click, pfffffft. I’m cutting back on the cigs but not as quickly as I’d like. Not very many vices available out here you know? General Order #1: No drinking, no civilian clothes, no sex, no going outside to restaurants, no porn, no full days off, no, no, no… well, you get the picture. Damn, I’m hungry.
The water in the mini boiler is hot enough for tea. Tea before 10 (am), tea after 3 (pm). That’s what the boss always says. He’s a Brigadier, Royal Marine (United Kingdom). I hear tea is good for you, even has more caffeine than coffee. And anti-oxidants, I think (not really sure what they do and there’s a fleeting memory of oxidation-reduction equations from chem. 101).
The smell of heater is in the room, the smell of winter, the smell of the holidays. Tea to my left, computer in front of me in bed, iTunes playing shuffle lightly in the background. I feel like writing and the journal book calls to me …
As the Crow Flies
I recall my first helo ride in theatre. (as in war theatre, not drama class). Our team was standing by the landing zone with our sea bags, body armor tight against our cores, uniform sticking on our hides like wet rags. God it’s hot. The air is different here you see. My senses were alarmed when it encountered the air. It burned. They said it would be like a hair dryer but they were wrong. You can’t really imagine a body sized hair dryer, and even if you did it’s unidirectional. No, this place is more like an oven. Lochridge checks the temperature. “Damn brother, it’s 124 degrees”. I wipe some of the salt and sweat from my eyes. He’s not exaggerating, he’s not kidding. This past summer the temperature reached a max peak of 160 degrees Farenheit. At least I can still taste salt in my sweat. It’s bad if you can’t. It’s dangerous. Means you don’t have enough salt, not enough electrolytes. Gotta keep track of your water, Sergeant always said that, keep track of your water. You flush all the salts out you’re dead.
We hear them. Two birds (helicopters) are making their way from the horizon. Blackhawks. They land and we approach the entrance at 90 degrees. The pilots get pissy if you approach from any other angle. You’ll get bad marks if you’re passengers get chopped up because you’re team wasn’t directing them properly.
“PUT THE HEADSETS ON!” Yelling can’t be helped. I’m fumbling with the pilot style quick release seat belts. Fuck, the sweat keeps stinging my eyes. My shades keep slipping on my nose from the sweat. I should’ve worn the ballistic shades, they never sleep. Note for next time.
Click. You can hear the engines whine, and the bird lifts up. “HEY CRUZ, HAHA, YOU GOT THE HURRICANE SEAT. THE HURRICANE SEAT!” What the hell is Strelchuk talking about. That’s when I get it. 70mph of hot air manhandling me like a rag doll. This is gonna be a fun ride.
The Burning Plains
The helo makes its steady track across the Arabian skies. I look to my starboard side. The sands are endless. They stretch on as far as the eye can see, fading into the horizon like a tan ocean. There are veins of water, memories of water really, that stretch out from the river. What a harsh environment. The people here must be as tough as the land they live in… unforgiving and hardened. Below we pass over some simple huts, specks of what I assume to be sheep nearby.
Then I see them. For the first time. The Burning Plains. Towers by the dozen, burning oils and gasses from beneath the Earth like some post-apocalyptic wasteland. The grey haze of dust and sand stretch to the heavens. The towers burn in that cloud of sand, like bright red, orange, and yellow beacons of light atop dark metal altars. The sand rolls and swirls, a great, sheer, and churning mammoth of a wall against these equally enormous towers of fire. Even at this height I feel small and insignificant, like an ant watching two giants wrestle.
The winning force, or rather the appearance of winning, depends on the time. During the day, the grey haze of dust and sand seem to dominate the brilliance of the black torches. At night though, the haze and dust act like complementing halos about a dozen burning suns. The darkness shivers against the giant’s pulsing waves of heat and light. It’s beautiful and the vision moves my heart with awe and wonder…
Barbed Wires Against a Starlit Nigh
It’s night time here. I lean back against the T-walls, the protective concrete barriers that form the boundaries of our camp. They are old, cracked, stone guardians that keep me company as I dismiss another day gone by. They wear crowns of spiraling and rusted razor wire. They look blankly down on me as if to say… nothing. I’m in a camp several hours away from Basrah, southern Iraq. We’re so far off from civilization that the light pollution is minimal, if not unnoticeable.
I look up. The deep night sky is different here from the view aboard the ship I once was assigned to in Japan. The Pacific night sky. The Arabian night sky. So many different skies, and yet they all share enough to be familiar. The stars and the walls are my companions. I puff away leisurely as I sit on the picnic table. The table and I are outlined by the yellow flood light at this corner of the camp. The lights burn against the darkness, they keep us safe.
There are writings and drawings on the table, whether carved with knife or etched with sharpie or pen. Endless single year tour generations of soldiers, sailors and airmen. There are names, dates, nicknames, and humorously vulgar statements about life out here in the desert written on that rugged and worn table. Coffee stains, chew spit bottle stains, light stick stains. I chuckle. Somehow this view of barbed wires against the starlit night is… rustically tranquil. 1 year to go. What should I write on the table? “Reggie Cruz was here. Aug2010 – Aug2011. Duty has brought me here. My eyes look forward.”…
Hard Luck Woman
I turn my head around to see where the sound is emanating from in the hallway. A senior female sergeant is making her way down the hall, going in the opposite direction. She’s older than I am, 10 or so years of more experience and service on her tight but proud shoulders. The sound is coming from her M16. Why didn’t they give her an M4? They weight about 30% less and are doubly more manageable during movement. Damn logistics.
She has a slight limp. One can imagine how much wear and tear this line of work has on the female body. Not to be sexist. I know women have a much higher pain threshold and indefinitely more patience then men. But strain and stress over time is less kind to women than those variables are to men.
And yet, despite the slight limp in her gait she commands an air of sturdiness, of tested strength, of learned wisdom and subtle determination. She walks with duty as her support, with a quiet, fighting spirit has her companion. She has known hard work, has known the hard life, and has not backed down. Amazing. I wonder, does she have a family? A husband or children? I ask myself why women are sent to war zones. Granted they do not do infantry work, though how many times they’ve been caught in the crossfire I do not know. But they are here, and support in ways men cannot. They have the patience and the delicacy that most men can barely muster. I’m thankful that she is here, and I respect her.
I realize I’ve been staring for a while and turn back to go on with my duties. I’ll have to introduce myself sometime, after all, same team, same fight, and hell, we work in the same building. I’m sure I can learn a thing or two from her.
Clack. And I know she’s turned the corner.
It’s 1600 hours and I’m on break. The government computers have limited internet access for security purposes so I make the trip to the common room where the shared computer center/café is located. It’s a long walk in this huge building that once belonged to the Iraqi military’s communication division. In fact, it’s the largest building in several kilometers.
I’m finally in the basement. If the work wasn’t so slow today I’d probably not have been given this opportunity. A rare but welcomed blessing. Nice, no line today. I write my name on the sign in sheet and head into the computer center. I guess the other departments must have their usual mega list of tasking, only a few people in here. Good for me. I log on and surf the usual restricted sites: facebook, vh1.com, youtube, manga sites, etc.
I hear a girl’s voice and the sound of a guitar. Curious, I peer over my wooden cubicle and a couple of rows ahead there is, whaddya know, a girl with a guitar. She’s on Skype and there’s a boy of similar age to her on the screen. Boy. Girl. I realize that they’re about 18 or 19, and I should be calling her a woman. Hell, she is serving her country in a war zone. Yes, I know Obama said the war is over, but that doesn’t stop the anti-government factions, the Talibans, and your general run-o-the-mill terrorists from shooting at our base with bullets and rockets and attacking the occasional convoy with IED’s. Right. She is a woman. A young woman, but still a woman serving her country.
The boy’s in civies, looks like a college dorm in the background. Realizing I’m being nosy I sit back down. She has a good voice and the guitar is pleasant to my ears. Not often you hear live music out here in Baghdad. Better than youtube and a headset. I sit back and enjoy what few minutes I have left of my break. She sings softly and sweetly, there in her Army Combat Uniform, serenading the boy in the background and not giving a lick to who hears her. Her dark hair is tied back tightly, as required in regulations, and she wears only the barest and most conservative amount of make up. Not that she needs it, her skin is lightly tanned, youthful and healthy. Pretty if I do say so myself. There is only the faintest of Latin accents in her voice. Haha, something to garnish/flavor the notes a bit eh? As Borat would say, “Niiiiiiiiiice.”
I hope that guy knows how lucky he is. Unfortunately, deployments generally have a negative effect on the survival chances of most relationships. They call it the 10% club, because that is the success ratio of relationships that make it through deployments (this is not counting those tried and tested multiple deployment marriages). And what can you expect? In today’s fast paced world with packed cities of unlimited “options” and even more instant gratification mediums and stimulants there’s no wonder that nothing lasts for our generation. I hope she’s part of the 10%, she seems like such a nice girl. The cynic in me says the boy is in college and is young enough to make many a foolish decisions. Ha, I remember a few of those foolish decisions I’ve made myself, some none to recent. They say the number of mistakes decrease as you get wiser with age, I wonder though.
As I sign out of the computer and head out I silently thank her in my mind for this little bit of peace and music in a place far, far from home.
The Men of Union III
Union III is my FOB (Forward Operating Base). It’s in the International Zone. It’s home, for a year anyway. There are many people here, from all walks of life. There is really only one road that goes down the length of the base. As you walk it, you see those men that come from all those walks of life.
The United Kingdom.
These men are NATO forces, food services personnel, janitors, cashiers, supply laborers, translators, Department of State civilians, merchants, secretaries, guards, drivers, etc. We all are here, we are all family. They leave their home countries for duty or for the prospect of a better life for their loved ones back home. Our possessions are limited, the spaces cramped and tight. But we have electricity, running water, and hot meals. It is enough, more than enough as we recall the places we know of that have far less amenities. We are lucky.
The laborers and guards are third country nationals. The pay they receive here goes beyond what is available in the poverty stricken areas of Africa and the Southern and Southeastern Asian countries to which they hail. The dangers are the same for them. Gunfire, mortars. They sleep in the same barracks as us, they hear the sirens and alarms that scream into the night. They hold the pictures of their loved ones and dear friends close to their hearts. They have brothers, and sisters, daughter, and sons, grandparents, parents, and their wives. They do this for them. They are brave men. At dinner they speak softly, quietly, with few words. We share our meals. Hundreds of us in the cafeteria. Stern faced, guarded, but kind, young, old, strong, or ailing. We exchange humble smiles, all of us with our own purposes and motivations. All of us as one.
They will spend years here, saving the comparatively great monies paid to them. Their dreams are grand, as are their sacrifices, no matter what job they hold here. They brave the dangers. They have my respect. In this respect we share bonds, light and thin, for communication is limited in this sea of cultures. But we understand, deep down, because we share similar dreams in the night. The dreams of better futures. The dream of the future. And although we speak the most basic of salutations, it is enough. The bond is there. The kind of unspoken unity that is existent amongst a group in any difficult and/or alien environment. We are here. We, the men of Union III.