The Daily Grind

Camp Liberty, Iraq/March 28, 2005

I think me ma believes I’m in constant danger (other than, of course, the trouble I get myself into), and I realize the news media doesn’t really delve into the daily life of a soldier on a Forward Operating Base (FOB), mostly, I imagine, because it’s pretty boring. So here’s a glimpse:

Life here can be surreal. Not a dreamy, LSD-induced Sgt Pepper’s type of surreal, but a result of the bizarre juxtaposition of modern conveniences, relative civility, Play Station-at-your-fingertips life on the FOB compared with the reality of life “outside the wire.”

I live in one half of a 12’ x 40’ trailer I share with another major, our individual rooms separated by a common bathroom. I’m living about as good as one can live here in Iraq. My trailer is one of about 40 located on Lot 10; many lots are lumped together to compose an “LSA” (Logistical Support Area). There are thousands of these trailers on nothing but gravel and dirt, meticulously laid out in grids. Given the weather and dusty terrain, and but for the absence of cowboys, Mexicans (excepting me, of course), and pink plastic flamingos, it could be a west Texas trailer park. Within walking distance is my office, MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation), a gym, the dining facility, and a laundry facility, ostensibly owned by KBR/Halliburton but run solely, it appears, by Filipino labor. We have a Burger King, a Subway, a Pizza Plus, a post office, a bazaar, and a huge Post Exchange that sells everything from socks and envelopes to bicycles and 64” televisions.

I show up at my office about 7:45 each morning, start coffee, and check my email. The rest of the office trickles in between 0800 and 0900, and we see clients throughout the day, the routine broken up by frequent bullshit sessions. Topics range from current events to Larry’s shrewd decision to shave his head, thus avoiding the impending comb-over, to our client’s misconduct relative to the things they confront off the FOB. I have plenty of time to exercise, and do so almost daily. The gym is about 100 meters away, I run a 5 kilometer loop around a nearby lake, and the only hill on the FOB is behind my office, up which I can do sprints.

The dining facility is better than expected. There is good food at every meal, exceptional desserts, and all the Red Bull my enlisted soldier can fit into his pockets. Televisions line the walls, one side perpetually on ESPN, the other on FOX news (must we always be drinking the Kool Aid?). There is an outdoor patio, floored with Astroturf and roofed with a brown and yellow awning. Lights wrap around tree-trunks in the Dead Palm Tree Garden (a valiant effort by the Army, albeit an unsuccessful one), and music, invariably jazz, blares from speakers mounted on an elevated deck. Though we get the occasional mortar, it is by far the exception rather than the rule. Any “boom” is enough of an event that when we hear one, we leave our offices to see if we can see where it landed. Rarely are we successful. My biggest complaint is the lack of motivation from the contractors tasked to fix the door handle on one of the two port-a-poddies (such a funny word) outside our office. I feel safe every day, and life, but for my location and missing all of you, is pretty good. Life is almost – almost – normal.

But now the surreal:

My trailer is ringed with 6’ high concrete barriers, which given the fact my trailer is elevated about 3’, is good coverage if I’m lying down, not so good when I’m standing up. My 5 km loop goes around a lake where Uday supposedly dumped bodies. The gym is filled with soldiers working out, still in their uniforms, their weapons either leaned up against the wall or strapped to their legs. The top of the hill up which I sprint is peppered with radio antennas, camouflage tents, and special radars that detect incoming mortars and rockets and then track them back to their point of origin. Within sight of my office are three aerostat balloons, all tethered to the ground and equipped with cameras that maintain constant observation of the surrounding town. One of my attorneys, while attending a morning Battle Update Brief, watched – live via video feed – a VBIED drive into a US Army HWWMV, killing two soldiers and injuring another. Wherever I go, there is an M9 pistol on my right hip and a round-filled magazine on my left.

To enter our dining facility, you have to show your identification to two armed guards, then walk around 10′ barriers protecting the building. Inside the DFAC, M16 rifles and helmets clog the aisles. The patronage consists of American Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines, but also soldiers from Australia, Britain, Japan, South Korea, El Salvador, Poland, and Estonia, among others. There’s a bizarre mix of civilians: muscular ex-Special Forces types working as security contractors; OGA (“Other Governmental Agencies” – read CIA, DIA, etc) personnel with compact automatic weapons; overweight hairy guys sporting Ted Nugent t-shirts and mullets and too-tight jeans and working for Kellog, Brown & Root as mechanics, truck-drivers, and whatever else (Lord knows what those guys are running from); and masses of third-world nationals, who basically run the infrastructure. They work as barbers, cleaners, carpenters, food-servers, sanitation workers, check-out clerks. They come predominantly from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines, all countries so poor that $20 a day is apparently enough of a windfall for them and their families at home that they’re willing to travel to Iraq and work in a dangerous and borderline oppressive environment.

These workers, like many of the military personnel, never leave the FOB. Soldiers for whom leaving the base is a daily undertaking derisively refer to us stay-behind types as “fobbits.” Hilarious. There’s an incredible amount of disparity in the soldier’s experience in Iraq. The Air Force is here for just four months, the Marines for six, and the Army for twelve. Some members of the National Guard will go 18 months before they see their homes again. Some soldiers live a solitary existence helping to train the Iraqi Army, some live on isolated FOBs and experience combat on a daily basis, some live on huge FOBs with all the conveniences of home (like me), some rub elbows with the state department & CIA spooks in the Green Zone, surreptitiously drinking beer and lounging pool side, and some live in Kuwait where they can wear civilian clothes, don’t have to carry their weapons, and neither hear nor see the bad guys, ever. One would think the disproportionate amount of danger faced between a soldier who lives on a FOB and a soldier who lives on the road would contribute to a tense situation, but the reality is that it just doesn’t matter. I read about a Marine who’s been hit by IED’s nine times, and is going home not only alive, but with all his digits and limbs as well. Last month, two soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division died when a VBIED crashed into their HMMWV – they’d been here two weeks, and were doing their “left seat/right seat” ride, where the outgoing soldier shows the incoming soldier the ropes. To the insurgency, a Joe is a Joe, whether he (or she) has been on the road two times or two hundred. The insurgency, it seems, is a fickle mistress.

But enough of that. One cool thing to end on – the CCCI. The Central Criminal Court of Iraq is a partially bombed building in Baghdad where most of the insurgents are eventually tried. The process works like this: US Army unit goes out on patrol, gathers up Bad Guys plus evidence against Bad Guys (US dollars, prohibited weapons, cell phone parts for setting of IEDs, water color portrait of Saddam and Osama in angelic embrace). US soldiers put Bad Guys in a BIF (Brigade Interrogation Facility), where they are, of course, interrogated. Some Bad Guys aren’t so bad, and they’re let go. Some Bad Guys say they aren’t really Bad Guys, but we don’t believe them, so they hang out a little bit. Some Bad Guys are the real deal (Q: “What were you doing with the wires and the cell phone?” A: “I want to kill Americans.”), and they get sent to Abu Ghraib or Bucca until they have their day in court at the CCCI.

One of my friends, an Operations Law attorney responsible for gathering the evidence against insurgents, sent me an email asking to meet him in the Green Zone so I could witness the court in action. He brought two soldiers with him (one, it turned out, was a Samoan kid with whom I used to play rugby) who were involved in a firefight with an insurgent sometime in November. The Iraqi had fired on these two soldiers, and they returned fire, one shooting him in the leg, the other then administering first aid. The unit then transported him to a field hospital for medical attention (if it weren’t so serious, it would be comical, no?), and he was eventually transferred first to Abu and then to the CCCI for his trial.

The court itself is located a few hundred yards outside the Green Zone, technically in an unsecured area. To get there, you drive from the Green Zone to an enormous metal gate cut into a huge concrete barrier. Prior to the drive, we were given a movement brief from the Air Force Security Team that was to guide us the few hundred meters from the gate to the actual court house. In the middle of the brief, upon taking in the battle-savvy appearance of the two soldiers with my friend, and giving a nod to my Ranger tab, our escort stopped – I kid you not – and said, “well, you guys look like shooters. We’ll just follow your lead.” Are you kidding me?

We opened the metal gate, with a suspense-building slow creak, and walked in. I fully expected to see Augustus Galoop gobbling down sweets and drinking from the Chocolate River. Immediately we spread out into a V formation, looking in all directions, maintaining vigilance – very Oliver Stone/Platoon type of stuff. This is bad guy land, right? As we approach the courthouse, I see nothing but Iraqi men and women in business attire, walking around like it’s a Tuesday morning at any courthouse in America.

Don’t we look silly.