The Secret Letter From Iraq

Friday, Oct. 06, 2006

All: I haven't written very much from Iraq.
There's really not much to write about. More
exactly, there's not much I can write about
because practically everything I do, read or hear
is classified military information or is
depressing to the point that I'd rather just
forget about it, never mind write about it. The
gaps in between all of that are filled with the
pure tedium of daily life in an armed camp. So
it's a bit of a struggle to think of anything to
put into a letter that's worth reading. Worse,
this place just consumes you. I work 18-20-hour
days, every day. The quest to draw a clear
picture of what the insurgents are up to never
ends. Problems and frictions crop up faster than
solutions. Every challenge demands a response.
It's like this every day. Before I know it, I
can't see straight, because it's 0400 and I've
been at work for 20 hours straight, somehow
missing dinner again in the process. And once
again I haven't written to anyone. It starts all
over again four hours later. It's not really like
Ground Hog Day, it's more like a level from Dante's Inferno.
Rather than attempting to sum up the last seven
months, I figured I'd just hit the record setting
highlights of 2006 in Iraq. These are among the
events and experiences I'll remember best.
Worst Case of Deja Vu - I thought I was familiar
with the feeling of deja vu until I arrived back
here in Fallujah in February. The moment I
stepped off of the helicopter, just as dawn
broke, and saw the camp just as I had left it ten
months before - that was deja vu. Kind of
unnerving. It was as if I had never left. Same
work area, same busted desk, same chair, same
computer, same room, same creaky rack, same . . .
everything. Same everything for the next year. It
was like entering a parallel universe. Home
wasn't 10,000 miles away, it was a different lifetime.
Most Surreal Moment - Watching Marines arrive at
my detention facility and unload a truck load of
flex-cuffed midgets. 26 to be exact. We had put
the word out earlier in the day to the Marines in
Fallujah that we were looking for Bad Guy X, who
was described as a midget. Little did I know that
Fallujah was home to a small community of
midgets, who banded together for support since
they were considered as social outcasts. The
Marines were anxious to get back to the midget
colony to bring in the rest of the midget
suspects, but I called off the search, figuring
Bad Guy X was long gone on his short legs after
seeing his companions rounded up by the giant infidels.
Most Profound Man in Iraq - an unidentified
farmer in a fairly remote area who, after being
asked by Reconnaissance Marines if he had seen
any foreign fighters in the area replied "Yes, you."
Worst City in al-Anbar Province - Ramadi, hands
down. The provincial capital of 400,000 people.
Lots and lots of insurgents killed in there since
we arrived in February. Every day is a nasty gun
battle. They blast us with giant bombs in the
road, snipers, mortars and small arms. We blast
them with tanks, attack helicopters, artillery,
our snipers (much better than theirs), and every
weapon that an infantryman can carry. Every day.
Incredibly, I rarely see Ramadi in the news. We
have as many attacks out here in the west as
Baghdad. Yet, Baghdad has 7 million people, we
have just 1.2 million. Per capita, al-Anbar
province is the most violent place in Iraq by
several orders of magnitude. I suppose it was no
accident that the Marines were assigned this area in 2003.
Bravest Guy in al-Anbar Province - Any Explosive
Ordnance Disposal Technician (EOD Tech). How'd
you like a job that required you to defuse bombs
in a hole in the middle of the road that very
likely are booby-trapped or connected by wire to
a bad guy who's just waiting for you to get close
to the bomb before he clicks the detonator? Every
day. Sanitation workers in New York City get paid
more than these guys. Talk about courage and commitment.
Second Bravest Guy in al-Anbar Province - It's a
20,000 way tie among all these Marines and
Soldiers who venture out on the highways and
through the towns of al-Anbar every day, not
knowing if it will be their last - and for a couple of them, it will
Worst E-Mail Message - "The Walking Blood Bank is
Activated. We need blood type A+ stat." I always
head down to the surgical unit as soon as I get
these messages, but I never give blood - there's
always about 80 Marines in line, night or day.
Biggest Surprise - Iraqi Police. All local guys.
I never figured that we'd get a police force
established in the cities in al-Anbar. I
estimated that insurgents would kill the first
few, scaring off the rest. Well, insurgents did
kill the first few, but the cops kept on coming.
The insurgents continue to target the police,
killing them in their homes and on the streets,
but the cops won't give up. Absolutely incredible
tenacity. The insurgents know that the police are
far better at finding them than we are - and they
are finding them. Now, if we could just get them
out of the habit of beating prisoners to a pulp .
. . Greatest Vindication - Stocking up on
outrageous quantities of Diet Coke from the chow
hall in spite of the derision from my men on such
hoarding, then having a 122mm rocket blast apart
the giant shipping container that held all of the
soda for the chow hall. Yep, you can't buy experience.
Biggest Mystery - How some people can gain weight
out here. I'm down to 165 lbs. Who has time to eat?
Second Biggest Mystery - if there's no atheists
in foxholes, then why aren't there more people at Mass
every Sunday?
Favorite Iraqi TV Show - Oprah. I have no idea. They all have
Coolest Insurgent Act - Stealing almost $7
million from the main bank in Ramadi in broad
daylight, then, upon exiting, waving to the
Marines in the combat outpost right next to the
bank, who had no clue of what was going on. The Marines
waved back. Too
Most Memorable Scene - In the middle of the
night, on a dusty airfield, watching the better
part of a battalion of Marines packed up and
ready to go home after over six months in
al-Anbar, the relief etched in their young faces
even in the moonlight. Then watching these same
Marines exchange glances with a similar number of
grunts loaded down with gear file past - their
replacements. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said.
Highest Unit Re-enlistment Rate - Any outfit that
has been in Iraq recently. All the danger, all
the hardship, all the time away from home, all
the horror, all the frustrations with the fight
here - all are outweighed by the desire for young
men to be part of a band of brothers who will die
for one another. They found what they were
looking for when they enlisted out of high
school. Man for man, they now have more combat
experience than any Marines in the history of our Corps.
Most Surprising Thing I Don't Miss - Beer.
Perhaps being half-stunned by lack of sleep makes up for it.
Worst Smell - Porta-johns in 120 degree heat -
and that's 120 degrees outside of the porta-john.
Highest Temperature - I don't know exactly, but
it was in the porta-johns. Needed to re-hydrate after each trip
to the
Biggest Hassle - High-ranking visitors. More
disruptive to work than a rocket attack. VIPs
demand briefs and "battlefield" tours (we take
them to quiet sections of Fallujah, which is
plenty scary for them). Our briefs and commentary
seem to have no affect on their preconceived
notions of what's going on in Iraq. Their trips
allow them to say that they've been to Fallujah,
which gives them an unfortunate degree of
credibility in perpetuating their fantasies about
the insurgency here. Biggest Outrage -
Practically anything said by talking heads on TV
about the war in Iraq, not that I get to watch
much TV. Their thoughts are consistently both
grossly simplistic and politically slanted. Biggest Offender:
Best Intel Work - Finding Jill Carroll's
kidnappers - all of them. I was mighty proud of
my guys that day. I figured we'd all get the
Christian Science Monitor for free after this, but none have
showed up
Saddest Moment - Having an infantry battalion
commander hand me the dog tags of one of my
Marines who had just been killed while on a
mission with his unit. Hit by a 60mm mortar. He
was a great Marine. I felt crushed for a long
time afterward. His picture now hangs at the
entrance to our section area. We'll carry it home
with us when we leave in February.
Best Chuck Norris Moment - 13 May. Bad Guys
arrived at the government center in a small town
to kidnap the mayor, since they have a problem
with any form of government that does not include
regular beheadings and women wearing burqahs.
There were seven of them. As they brought the
mayor out to put him in a pick-up truck to take
him off to be beheaded (on video, as usual), one
of the Bad Guys put down his machinegun so that
he could tie the mayor's hands. The mayor took
the opportunity to pick up the machinegun and
drill five of the Bad Guys. The other two ran
away. One of the dead Bad Guys was on our top
twenty wanted list. Like they say, you can't fight City Hall.
Worst Sound - That crack-boom off in the distance
that means an IED or mine just went off. You just
wonder who got it, hoping that it was a near miss
rather than a direct hit. Hear it practically every day.
Second Worst Sound - Our artillery firing without
warning. The howitzers are pretty close to where
I work. Believe me, outgoing sounds a lot like
incoming when our guns are firing right over our
heads. They'd about knock the fillings out of your teeth.
Only Thing Better in Iraq Than in the U.S. -
Sunsets. Spectacular. It's from all the dust in the air.
Proudest Moment - It's a tie every day, watching
our Marines produce phenomenal intelligence
products that go pretty far in teasing apart Bad
Guy operations in al-Anbar. Every night Marines
and Soldiers are kicking in doors and grabbing
Bad Guys based on intelligence developed by our
guys. We rarely lose a Marine during these raids,
they are so well-informed of the objective. A
bunch of kids right out of high school shouldn't
be able to work so well, but they do.
Happiest Moment - Well, it wasn't in Iraq. There
are no truly happy moments here. It was back in
California when I was able to hold my family
again while home on leave during July.
Most Common Thought - Home. Always thinking of
home, of my great wife and the kids. Wondering
how everyone else is getting along. Regretting
that I don't write more. Yep, always thinking of home.
I hope you all are doing well. If you want to do
something for me, kiss a cop, flush a toilet, and
drink a beer. I'll try to write again before too long - I promise.