Saturday, March 05, 2005

Guarding the Bridge

I've just returned from a week at the Tigris River. Our company is responsible for guarding one of the few bridges that cross it. The bridge is important for logistical reasons and therefore must be guarded at all times. It's kind of nice to get away from the FOB for a week, but I still would rather be out doing patrols. Patrolling is obviously more exciting, if not more tiring, but at least you feel like you're doing something productive. Like any guard, the monotony of the long hours is only made bearable by the fact that it will come to an end. Anyone that has ever pulled guard is united by one universal desire, the longing for that fleeting moment when you're finally relieved. For this moment has soon passed before the overwhelming feeling of dread creeps into your psyche like an incurable virus. It's the dreadfulness of knowing that in just a few short hours, hours that seem to pass quicker than a few hours of sleep, you will once again be faced with another guard shift. Guard sucks. There's no better way to describe it. My brain screams out in agony as the hours of wasted productivity slowly creep by.

Of course in our line of work guard is something we must do. It is with this knowledge that I begrudgingly go about my duty. The fact that I'm guarding a bridge on the Tigris offers me no consolation. I guard this bridge the same way I would guard anything else the army tells me to, with my life. This bridge, for the time that I'm on guard, becomes the most important bridge in the world. It becomes the only bridge left in the world. Willing my mind to think of this bridge as the last on earth, I am somehow able to retain my sanity throughout another shift.

This last bridge on earth is a military bridge able to withstand the weight of the biggest and heaviest vehicles the military has to offer. No more than fifty feet up river from this bridge is another less substantial pontoon bridge used by the Iraqi civilians. Because of poor engineering or poor maintenance, this bridge is no longer able to hold even the smallest Asian cars. It's in such bad shape that pedestrians have a hard time getting past one section that has submerged beneath the water. Some type of platform has been haphazardly placed in this gap affording the pedestrians a precarious wet link. It's common to see some people emerge from their trek across with wet shoes. Some show their frustration, but most deal with this inconvenience as they do the other harsh realities of their existence, with silent resignation. There are times, like now, when the bridge is so bad that they have no choice but to cross ours. Fortunately some Iraqi contractors are currently working to fix the problem. Until then our bridge will bear the weight of not only our military vehicles, but also that of the Iraqi civilians and their vehicles. Our job is to search those vehicles for anything that could be used to destroy our bridge. The Iraqi Army guys who work alongside us have the same job, and part of our job is to ensure that they are doing theirs. Like every other aspect of Iraq's security, it is the Iraqi's who will have to assume this responsibility in the future

The compound we stay in is a nondescript stone structure that resembles a box and has absolutely no aesthetic value at all. It looks as if it has been here for twenty or more years when in fact it was built only five months ago. The Army supposedly paid between forty and fifty thousand dollars for this building. Are they kidding? The interior walls are covered with mold and the paint has already begun to chip off. Sometimes the mold builds up so much on the ceiling that it literally falls down onto those of us sleeping peacefully on the top bunks. The floors are bare stone, with loose rocks and dust forever triumphant over our brooms. The humidity within the walls is similar to that of a greenhouse. The leaky window units providing our heating and air contribute to this indoor fog. While I may sound negative, the truth is I'm forever thankful for these window units, especially during the oppressive summer months. Compared to the last time I was here, I'm amazed we even have an air conditioner.

The bunk beds that we sleep on are shoddy and each top bunk is sagging in the middle from our weight. The thin foam mattresses barely prevent the supporting wires from leaving a permanent imprint on my back. Each mattress has its own unique floral design with patches of yellow foam seen in places where the fabric has torn. My bunk, which unfortunately is a top one, now has the curvature of a smiley face, like a steel hammock. The person sleeping underneath me is in constant peril of being crushed, the elastic like beams of my bunk constantly stretching every time I move.

The sound of the generator providing our power is constantly roaring, reminding us that we are only an empty diesel can away from being in the dark. This power also keeps the two freezers, tv, window units, radios, and all of our personal electronic entertainment running at all times. We have a DVD player and a satellite hooked up to the tv. Considering our location and conditions, I would say that these luxuries are really amazing. We got the satellite hookup the day we arrived here. Not able to hook it up ourselves, we hired a man and his son that lived nearby to do the work for us. Some of the people may live in a mud house with weeds growing on the roof, but it doesn't stop them from having a satellite dish on top of their roof as well. It's almost like Saddam required a satellite in every home so he could effectively spread his propaganda to the masses. The son acted as the interpreter for his dad and after a half hour of work we had 303 channels of useless television. I say useless because about 300 of the channels are in Arabic or some other foreign language. The few channels that are in English are CNN World, BBC, a sports channel, and one business news channel. I personally can't stand the pretentious manner in which CNN World portrays itself as such a worldly entity. Forgetting their redneck founder's root's in the southeastern U.S., they barely make mention of the U.S., and if they do, it is profoundly negative. It's pretty much on par with Al Jazeera, which is one of the Arabic language channels we have. The few times I have made myself watch Al Jazeera, the footage has all been scenes of death and destruction here in Iraq. One scene in particular was the aftermath of the recent suicide bomber that killed over 125 Iraqis. Bodies ripped apart and limbless could be seen being piled on the back of trucks like ragdolls. Of course BBC is nothing more than a British version of NPR. While watching BBC I got the impression that the reporters were bored with the events they were reporting and would've rather been sitting around sipping tea and discussing the negative effects that the arrogant American government has wrought on the world. There are also four or five soft porn channels showing women in various stages of undress imploring viewers to call a number that is liberally posted all over the screen. I'm assuming many men have called that number with the false assumption that they would actually be talking to the female that is currently holding a phone to her ear while sitting around naked on a couch. Sometimes there are two girls sitting together as they hold a phone up between them. Hell, why not call then and maybe double your fun. Thankfully the initial novelty of these channels soon grew old for the guys that seemed to always want to watch them. The most these channels ever offered me was a little comical relief. I couldn't help but wonder if the girls ever thought about how ridiculous they looked.

There is a smaller building adjacent to ours that houses three showers and two toilets. The showers actually work and have good pressure, but the water heater is broken, causing all of us to lose our breath each time we dare to step under its icy stream. The toilets don't work for some reason, which doesn't surprise me. I inquired as to why there would be two toilets put in this building if they didn't work and received no clear answer. So two port-a-johns capture our waste and retain it until we suck it out with our own personal shit sucking truck that we have on the premises. Once sucked, this truck and its tank full of shit are backed down to a yellow flexible tube that runs into the river. For the record, this tube and its purpose was put in place by Iraqi's, not us. A similar tube attached to the tank of the truck is then joined with the one leading to the already waste filled Tigris. Once attached, it's just a matter of pulling a lever. At this point the contents of the tank, fueled by gravity, speed through the tube and into the river. It's not exactly a place you might take your kids swimming.

This is hardly the worst of what the Tigris holds underneath its dark surface. If you were brave enough, you could probably ford the river by simply walking out onto its surface, the myriad of objects hidden underneath providing the stepping stones. To put it plainly, Iraqis don't understand the concept of collecting trash. At best they will throw it into a pile and burn it, but mostly is it is just strewn everywhere, the Tigris becoming an involuntary receptacle throughout the years. The banks are stained with oil, providing black streaks of sludge that mark the ever-changing level of this great historic river. I can only wonder how beautiful this river might have been during the times it is mentioned in the Bible. I can only hope and pray that the apathy for which these people have for collecting trash will change. That could be one of the first big programs for the new Iraqi Government, with garbage men becoming the new national heroes. At the least it would instill a sense of pride in the younger generation for their land.

Down the river from us and on the same side there are a couple of pump houses that pump water from the river all day. Inside these pump houses the air is dank and the only light is from the sunlight which seeps through the cracks. The motors used to pump the water resemble something that might have been manufactured in the fifty's. The ground within is covered in oil and fuel. The water is pumped into a couple of stone wells that have small canals running off from them, feeding the small farms and cattle nearby. Our bodily waste had now been recycled back into the food chain, becoming fertilizer for the crops growing nearby. Over the course of the year some of us will probably eat some of the vegetables growing on these farms. I've seen one man dip his hand into one of these wells and throw water on his face and into his mouth. The first couple of scoops were used to rinse his mouth and spit, but with the last scoop he threw his head back and swallowed it all in one big gulp. You can imagine what I was thinking when I saw this man drink some of this water. We had seen carcasses, heaps of trash, oil, vehicle parts, human waste, and everything else imaginable floating in the river. No doubt there has been corpses at one time or another thrown in as well. All those environmentalists back home would literally shit themselves if they saw this. I would just hope that their's wouldn't end up in the river as well.

The locals that live nearby are all friendly to us. The kids, from toddlers to teenagers, interact with us on a daily basis. Most of the kids have an impressive grasp of the English language. They teach us Arabic and we help them with words and phrases in the English language. They have acted as interpreters for us on more than a few occasions, earning our praises as well as gifts for their help. The look of frustration demonstrated by some of the Iraqi's inability to understand us soon melts away when one of these kids steps in to translate our words for them. Mister is a common label place on all of us by the Iraqi's. Hello, good morning, good, and thank you are also common words that every Iraqi seems to know and want to say with enthusiasm. I've learned some Arabic greetings and phrases as well, which elicits a smile from the Iraqi's. One kid gave us an English-Arabic dictionary to help us. Sometimes there will be a crowd of kids around me and other soldiers as we practice each others language with comedic results.

The local kids and some of the adults have taken advantage of their locale to make some cash. Some of these kids can make more money in one day selling stuff to us than they can in a week working the fields. This bridge has become a makeshift tourist trap, with the numerous convoys waiting to cross the bridge becoming unwilling tourists. They've given up trying to sell their wares to us, focusing instead on the traveling soldiers passing through. They are sometimes aware of a convoy coming before we are, running to get in position to show off their merchandise to the heavily armed and protected vehicles. They sell bayonets, knives, swords, Iraqi money, coins, lighters, pirated DVD's, and of course porn. There is apparently no place on earth where you can't buy porn. I'm personally not interested, but there are some in our group that are, and plenty more passing through that I've seen holding up their convoy's in order to get there hands on some. I guess that's why some of the guys weren't too disappointed when they found that the satellite dish didn't offer any. There's always some local that has what they need. I've even heard they have Viagra to sell. I can't imagine why any guy around here would want to buy Viagra. It's not as if there isn't already a healthy level of testosterone flowing through all of us. Besides the bad things, they are always willing to get you anything you may need. This was the case for me the other day when I wanted sugar for my coffee in the morning. Just hand over a couple of dollars and a half hour later you have a five pound bag of sugar. Bread and other snacks are also available. Most of the IA will offer us some of their food, hoping for an MRE in exchange. We give them water and MREs every day, but that doesn't stop them from wanting more. They are all very generous in their willingness to give us their food, especially their bread, which they know we like.

Most of the kids go to school. If they don't, it's usually because their family depends on them to work. Some siblings trade out, with one going to school this year while one works and then switching the next year. Hundreds of men, including some boys, cross over the bridge every day on their way to work, each one with long shovels thrown over their shoulder. They usually go to work when the sun comes up and return back across the river in the early afternoon. The women also work and usually return back home with huge bundles resting precariously on their head's. Teachers, businessmen, children, shepherds, merchants, farmers and others can all be seen crossing the bridge. Some walk, some drive, some pile in the back of trucks, some ride on bikes, some on motorcycles, and some even ride on their donkey, and for whatever their reason, they all depend on that bridge. It's their link to the other side, and to the freedom to do whatever they choose. I no longer just guard that bridge for us. I guard it for them. It's the last bridge they have on this earth.


Blogger renny said...

That's quite a description. Thank you again for the glimpses into your daily routines. I hope you put it all together into a book someday... I would buy one. It's good to have something out there about what our men are really doing over there, as opposed to what the news says. I'm always happy when you've posted another blog entry.

As always, you and your family are in our prayers.


8:25 AM  
Blogger Papa Ray said...

Hey Young'un

Yes, people are amazing, especially the kids. They adapt and learn so fast. We had the same type of situations and observations back nearly forty years ago in Nam.

"Last bridge on earth", is a good description, and if those bridges were blown up, they would look to you to build them another one.

Keep up your blog, it will do you almost as much good as it will your readers.

Hang in and don't let too much hang out.

Papa Ray
West Texas

1:26 PM  
Blogger Huntress said...

their link to the other side, and to the freedom to do whatever they choose. I no longer just guard that bridge for us. I guard it for them. Wow - Im misty eyed!
Freedom ..its a powerful ideal.. and the driving force behind what this admin set out to do in Iraq.

It may not be as exciting as patrols, but it is certainly as important. You are not just guarding the bridge, Michael, you are also the guardian of freedom!

1:34 PM  
Blogger mlee said...

You're writing is engaging. I'm with a publishing company. When I talk with returning soldiers, I do not get the flavor of what daily life is like. However, I can picture it when I read your work. mbennett

2:01 PM  
Blogger AFSister said...

Hey Michael-
That was an awesome account of guarding "the last bridge on earth". It's a good attitude to take toward something you don't really want to do. Make it important, and it becomes important. Make it miserable and it stays miserable.

Thanks for the update, and for the description of your living conditions too. You would think that they would be a heck of a lot better than that by now, considering how long we've been over there. I hope it gets better, man.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Bill H. said...

Great descriptive blog. As I read this I could picture crossing the bridge with Saddam's palace overlooking the bridge. The pontoon bridge further up river that we couldn't cross with the heavily laden trucks. All the different people waiting for us to cross.... so they could cross to their freedom. Your best blog.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Spatula said...

Wow. Awesome blog. Very real and very much appreciated. It's good to read about a positive side of this war. I'm glad you are open-minded enough to see the perks of the job, even when you despise the mundane setting. You're right; you serve a very important purpose. Keep up the good work! Love and prayers from Texas!

11:35 AM  
Blogger squid said...

Just discovered your blog , through the Naval "Proceeding "
The old guys at coffee in our town , worry about you guys . We are mostly vets from 30 40 , or 50 yrs ago .
Never served on land , but I do respect your tenacity and honesty about your situation .
Take care ,
Your in our prayers and thoughts .
We all have family over there .

4:36 PM  
Blogger squid said...

So , your a
0311 , just be careful and
stay loose .
thank you for professional attitute .
We vets from 40 yrs ago worry about you guys .
Your in our thoughts and prayers .

4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was really powerful. Thanks so much for sharing that level of detail. I'm glad you found meaning in your guard duty.

1:45 PM  
Anonymous gwtpn said...

I dont know what to say anymore. these posts are outstanding. you are a fantastic writer, really. could read these all day, and still go back to read them over again.

2:11 AM  
Anonymous Parthena said...

Bless you, and thank you for your sacrifice. I think you should write a book as well.

11:21 PM  

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