Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Final Week

Yep, this is my last week in Iraq. There were times I thought this moment would never come, but now I'm amazed it is here. I am definitely ready though. We talk about running all the way through the finish line. I think I got a leg cramp last week. Three days in a row I was bone tired. My motivation is also seriously lacking. I'm trying to stay focused on the things I have to get done this week.

I was asked if I will miss this place. I won't miss being here, but there are aspects of it I will miss.

First and foremost, the people. The people are not much different from those I work with back in the Pentagon, but the shared experience of being here changes things. Last night was a perfect example. I finished my day by having dinner with my State Department friends. One of their translators is an Iraqi-born woman whose family owns a restaurant in Arizona. She is an amazing cook. She made a huge spread of food for the State group, a reporter and cameraman from Fox News, and me. We enjoyed some delicious Iraqi food and great conversation. That type of experience isn't unique to here, but I appreciate it more when deployed because it is a nice escape from being here.

The job. The sad truth is, as a member of the military, working in a combat zone is what I train and prepare for throughout my career. I'm certainly not a warmonger, but over here I see a direct application of what I do and immediate results. I've received a lot of positive feedback lately, so I feel I made a difference here. I don't get the same job satisfaction at the Pentagon. This is one of the main reasons I volunteered to deploy to Iraq. For lack of a better phrase, this is where the action is and I wanted to come here to do my part.

The simple life. When I was back in the States in February, I was just blown away by all the options us Americans have, whether it's shopping, eating, things to do, or whatever. There is something to be said for a more simplistic lifestyle. I'm not talking Walden Pond simple here, but less distractions, less noise (okay, other than the frickin' F-16s taking off, someone please make them stop! sorry), less commercialism. The lack of options draws people together and makes it easier to focus on things such as staying in shape.

So while I will happily say goodbye to Iraq next week, in some ways I will look back fondly on my time here

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Out in the Real Iraq

Last week I was able to go off base into a couple of local villages for the first time. Being an agricultural area, the people here live pretty simply. So what I saw is much different than what someone in the Baghdad area would see. Not surprisingly, walking through the villages reminded me of being in Africa. This area was not favored by Saddam Hussein, so they have mostly dirt roads, inconsistent electricity, and lack clean water. The houses are mostly mud and brick construction with mud or cinder block walls separating yards, although there are some places nicer than others. I saw a building that was bombed by Coalition Forces back in 2003 and looks like nothing has been done with it since.

People came out and saw us as we walked around. You will occasionally get people who will give you a dirty look, but most seem happy to see us. Kids come up to us to shake our hands and ask for money, candy, or toys. Unfortunately, we taught them to do that when we gave handouts as what we thought was a goodwill gesture. That is symbolic for what is happening at the local government level. The Iraqis want us to solve their problems by telling people what to do, throwing money at it, or doing another construction project. We are trying to get them to develop Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems by working within their own political and budgetary system. Those systems aren't working very well yet though, so I am sure it is very frustrating for the Iraqis. Building a democracy is tough work and will take many years. I hope Iraq continues down that path and I wish them well.

The first day I went out was to see a local government in action. We parked our MRAPs (the huge armored trucks) next to the town hall and walked in. Some of the guys stayed there to attend the city council meeting while I went with another group to walk around town. We were escorted by several soldiers who ensured no danger came our way, so you don't need to worry mom (I know it is pointless to say that). Our first stop was to see a local police officer. One of the guys with me works with the local police and judges, so he talked with the Iraqi police officer about various cases they are working. He promised to provide any info he received about a couple of guys we are looking for and we promised to look for evidence to help build the case on someone the Iraqis have in jail, pretty normal police work. The next stop was to see the judge. The courthouse is not like we think of courthouses. The judges have offices where they hear evidence and make their rulings. Being the important Americans, we were escorted past men and women waiting to make their case before the judge. My friend had never met this judge, so mainly it was a social call. The judge even had chai (hot tea) brought in for us. My friend told us later that it is unusual for a judge to do that. We left the courthouse and went back to the town hall. One of the soldiers went to a local store and brought back fresh flatbread and candy bars for us. The bread was delicious. I then went into the council room to watch the rest of the meeting. I didn't have anyone to translate the discussions for me, but it didn't look much different than a city council meeting you would see in the States. I don't know if that is a good thing or if I should feel sorry for the Iraqis. After the meeting, we returned to our MRAPs and went back to the base.

The next day a group of us accepted a mayor's invitation to have lunch at his house. It was an opportunity for us to have a local, home-cooked meal and having the Americans at his house gives him wasta (basically, power). We piled into the MRAPs again and drove out to his village. The MRAPs are too big for some of the local roads, so we parked and walked about half a mile. Again people were out and the kids came up to us and walked with us. Not surprisingly, the mayor had a very nice house. He had a gated driveway and a very green front lawn. The mayor came out to greet us and introduced his children to us. The whole time we were there, we only saw men and children (boys and girls). The women remained in a different part of the house, which is traditional. There were also other local politicians and businessmen there (again, all about the wasta). We went inside into a traditional room for visitors. Here are one of the other guys and I sitting in there.

We socialized for about an hour before tables were brought in. The Iraqis have an interesting way of eating. At one end of the tables, the men set up one group of food that included lamb, lamb in rice with fried noodles and peanuts, fish, soup, vegetables, and bread. There were three more groups like that. Here is the group that was by me:

About 15 of us stood around the tables and just started digging in. We didn't sit down. We didn't have plates. We didn't have utensils (other than a spoon for the soup). You just grabbed food either by using the bread or with your bare hands. Three Iraqis across from me posed for a picture with one of the guys taking a bite of a piece of lamb. After the picture was taken, the guy put the half-eaten piece of lamb into the dish with the rest of the meat. I made sure I didn't pick any food from that side of the plate. All of us ate until we had our fill. The soldiers who escorted us, if they were brave enough, came in and got to eat also. Some of the men then cleaned up after us. We sat back down to continue socializing. Naturally, chai was offered. After being there about 3 hours, we posed for some pictures, said our goodbyes, and walked back to the MRAPs with of course the kids escorting us. It was great to get off base and just be able to relax with some local Iraqis.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter in the Land of Islam

I stole the title from the pastor's sermon during this morning's Sunrise Service. I decided to go to the Protestant service rather than mass because I figure how many times will I have the opportunity to attend an outdoor service while the sun is coming up over Iraq. Hopefully just this once. Despite the wind and the haze obscuring the rising sun, it was a beautiful service. I really enjoy the contemporary music they played. The pastor gave a great sermon on "He is risen." Maybe it's the Catholic in me, but I can't say I was that inspired by the "inspirational dance." Still it was well worth getting up at 5am to go. Afterward, the buddy I went with and I went to breakfast.

I've spent the rest of the day just relaxing. After breakfast I took a nap and got up in time to go to lunch. Some days you just have to be a bum. I have a meeting today, but I decided not to go into work. I worked every other day--Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, and even Groundhog Day--but I'm not going to work on this, the holiest day of the year. Although I'm not sure blogging and eating a chocolate bunny rabbit are the best ways to honor the resurrection of our Lord either. Oh well, Happy Easter!

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Taste of Iraq

I haven't had the opportunity to eat in a local restaurant or at an Iraqi's house yet, although I hope to before I leave. However, I did get to eat some authentic Iraqi food the past few days. On Thursday, two friends of mine went to an Iraqi restaurant that is off base. They had leftovers and shared them with me. There was shaved lamb, Iraqi pickles, something like pico de gallo, sautéed peppers, a rice dish, and, the staple of any Iraqi meal, pita bread. We made kebabs, aka sandwiches, with all the fixings. Fantastic. One of my friends, Sara, kept tearing off pieces of bread, picking up lamb with them, and then putting hummus on top. Delicious, but she kept giving them to me and pretty soon I was stuffed. Although the DFAC food is good, this was wonderful and a much appreciated change of pace.

I was invited by the same friends to join them for lunch at their office yesterday. Sara is well known for being a fantastic cook. She was born and grew up in Iraq before moving to the US. She started cooking Saturday night and finished about 1pm Sunday. The spread she laid out for the seven of us there was of Thanksgiving proportions. She made leg of lamb plus lamb meet for kebabs. There were two different rice dishes, potato curry with meatballs, tomato and pepper salad, hummus, and, of course, bread. We finished with traditional Iraqi chai (hot tea). This was by far the best meal I've had here. She did all this with only a two-burner hotplate and microwave. Amazing.

So I'm certainly not hurting for good food over here. It's a good thing I'm working out regularly.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Front Lawn

You thought I was joking before when I said I would talk about my front lawn, didn't you? Nope, I even have proof:

Okay, so it would get me kicked out of any homeowners association in America, but at least it is green. So much of this place is brown, gray, or some variation of both of them. There is concrete everywhere, such as the T-walls that are at the top of this picture. People paint their unit symbol or other designs on them just to break up the scenery. So something green, anything green, is worth celebrating. The area around the base is not nearly so brown. We are located in the breadbasket of Iraq. The surrounding area is all farmland. One of the most popular crops in this area is grapes. I've been lucky that I've been able to fly off base in a helicopter, so I've been able to see all the green that surrounds us. Here is an example of what I'm talking about: