Saturday, April 16, 2005

This Past Week at the Bridge

We’ve just completed our final week of guard at the Tigris for a while. All of us are glad to be giving it up. It will be another three months before we have to return. The less time I spend sitting on top of a tank guarding something is a good thing.

I watch the Iraqis passing by for four hours during my day shift, and see nothing but darkness during my night shift. The day is always more fun, for no other reason than things are happening around you and it makes the time go by faster. You never know what you may see during the course of those four hours during the day.

Most people come through and wave and smile as usual, but others just look at you blankly or don’t even turn their head. It’s almost like some of them just refuse to acknowledge our presence in their land, and I can’t really blame them. I don’t think they hate us, they probably just want to see us gone. It’s fun to try to wave to them anyway, especially the kids. A lot of cars will pass by us that are packed full of kids and adults. I always wave to the kids. They usually wave back, even when it looks like the adults are telling them not to.

The other day I saw a car drive by with its trunk open. A little boy and girl were both sitting in the trunk. The girl waved to us and the boy gave us the peace sign. Peace, something these kids haven’t experienced much of during their young life. I couldn’t help but think how much trouble the parents would get in if they were to be caught letting their kids ride in the trunk back in the States. Later the same day I saw a man riding in the bucket of a big front end loader. The tank on the other side of the river called over the radio telling me to get my camera ready, that I was about to see something that even out here would qualify as odd. It was more funny than odd, and the man seemed to be enjoying himself as I took his picture.

It’s still early April and already signs of the oppressive heat of summer are upon us. I’ve already experienced two summers in either Iraq or Kuwait, and I’m hardly looking forward to another. The heat in this land drains your spirit, leaving your body void of any energy. The necessity of water is paramount, a commodity more precious than gold. This leaves me wondering why the Iraqi Army guys show up for their guard without bringing this simple necessity. It’s worse than if they showed up with no weapon.

“Meester” they call incessantly, peering up at us from beside the tank. Why do they call us mister? The term mister is wearing on our nerves. Call me dude, man, Michael, American, or soldier, anything other than “Meester”or “Mista.” I try not to show my impatience with them as I respond to their call. “Meester, you have Wata,” they ask for the thousandth time? Are you kidding me? How can they show up for a 24-hour shift with no water? I know they have access to water. Why wouldn’t they bring a jug or some other container full of water from home? “We have no water,” I lie and feel cruel in the process. For it is a lie, but one I must tell. We have water. I have a big bottle sitting next to me, but it’s for me, for us, for our platoon. I felt like an uncaring ruler sitting upon my tank throne as they walk away dejectedly.

We are no longer allowed to give them water, a temporary shortage the last time we were here brought about this cruel rule. I used to give out water like candy, not thinking that our endless supply might possibly come to an end. But it did, and for a day we had to ration what little water we had until we could be re-supplied, causing us to ask passing convoys for any water they could spare. It was almost embarrassing to have to wave down a passing convoy and beg for water.

My conscience won’t let me be. I must at least try to get them some water. I call up the TOC and ask them if they can pass over some water to the IA, knowing what the inevitable response will be. The Lt. gets on the radio to respond. Apparently he must display his authority on the matter. With compassion in his voice he explains to me that we can’t afford to give them any water. I already know this but had to ask anyway, especially because of the heat. He tells me to ask them if they have any containers with them that we can fill with water from our water buffalo. This water is potable but not the bottled water they crave. Beggars can’t be choosers. They look up at me helpless as I ask them for some sort of container in which to fill with water. They have none, imagine that. I call back to the TOC and tell them that they have no containers. A minute later I can see over the barricades into our compound as the Lt. himself walks out with three empty water bottles. He fills them with the water from the buffalo, the same water that supplies our shower water. He then carries them over to the wall and passes them over to the soldiers. Mission complete, my mind rests a little easier as I swallow lukewarm water from a bottle, trying to replenish the fluids draining from every pore.

The Iraqi soldiers ask us for other things as well. They’ll ask for your watch, some trinket on our vest’s, chem-lights, always chem-lights, food, and our torch. Torch, as if we are cavemen from a prehistoric age. Which isn’t that farfetched when you consider that some of the people here live as though from prehistoric times. Torch is what some of them call flashlights. We need our flashlight’s, so we won’t soon be giving those up. I’ve had Iraqi’s in general ask me for just about everything on my person, including my wedding ring. They might as well ask me for my soul. It’s become a running joke among us that one day we might indeed be asked to give up our soul to these people. Always give me. “Give me _____”

I’m not disturbed by them asking me for water or other things so much as I am the greater problem I see in this. They want handouts. Maybe they’re used to us giving them too many things over the past couple of years. Maybe they’re accustomed to getting handouts from a dictator that gave just enough to meet their needs. Therein lies one of the many problems of a totalitarian or dictatorial regime. Those subservient to Saddam’s tyrannical rule were kept in submissiveness by his meager gifts. They tolerated him because within his iron fist he also held the food and other necessities which would sustain them. This as in communism creates an indolence within a population that can be much more dangerous than the dictator in whom they serve. They lose any desire to better themselves or their situation in life. Why try to attain something better when all you ever needed was handed to you.

We give and give and give some more and with pleasure, but at some point they are going to have to produce for themselves. This is essentially the most important issue facing them and us, especially in the case of the Iraqi Army, whose job it will be to secure their nation once we leave. They have to learn to stand on their own without our help and guidance. I’m personally very optimistic on this issue. From what I’ve seen they’re off to a good start, but there’s still work to be done. Like any organization, there are good people to be relied on, as well as those that contribute nothing to the greater good. I firmly believe that the vast majority of the Iraqi soldiers are good decent men that are proud of their country and want to see it prosper. These men will be relied upon to lead the others. I hope and pray they’ll accept this responsibility.

The other day, the same day that our Battalion Commander visited us, a long convoy of Iraqi troops crossed over the bridge. You should have seen them. This group of soldiers gave me pride as I watched them pass by. They had obviously been outfitted with brand new equipment and were wearing it with pride. Each of them had new helmets, bullet proof vests, weapons, and uniforms. They were even riding in new vehicles. Each vehicle was proudly displaying the new Iraqi flag, and as they passed, each man looked at us on the tank, and with the simple gesture of a wave, conveyed the silent respect that each army has for the other.

The young entrepreneurs that live close to the bridge have begun swimming to fight the warm weather. The strip down to their shorts, walk out onto the bridge or one of the pontoons supporting it, and launch themselves into the cold Tigris flowing beneath. I got caught up in their reverie and walked down the riverbank to take their pictures. The sight of me and my camera only added to their adventure as they rewarded me with more daring leaps. The river’s strong current would propel them down river as they swam for the shore. The goose bumps on their skin as well as their shortness of breath indicated how cold the water really was. Once ashore they would run to circle around me in the hopes of viewing their acrobatics on the small screen of my digital camera. With excited voices they would watch as I scrolled throughout the pictures, smiling and pointing to the camera when they saw themselves in flight. Each of their heads was dripping the surprisingly cold water onto my hands as they would say thank you whenever seeing their image. It was funny to me that they would say thank you. As if their image would be forever remembered from this day forward. I found myself wishing they had email addresses that I could send these pictures to. These images emboldened them even more as they ran back onto the bridge to jump again. Each one would yell to me before they jumped, making certain that I would capture their image again. I didn’t care. I was funny to watch, and my camera can hold hundreds of pictures. This cycle continued another five or six times before the cold water or the thought of lost money brought them back up to the road to continue hawking their wares.

Bayonets and of course pirated DVD’s make up most of their merchandise. You have to admire their persistence. A kid will try to sell you DVD’s until you finally tell him that you have no cash. The same kid will return 30 minutes later trying once again. Each of them will tell you they can get you whatever you want. They finally get a hint once we tell them we want a ticket home, a house in the Hamptons, a condo in Aspen, peace in the Middle East, a double Whopper with cheese, a billion dollars, and someone to pick up all the trash in Iraq. I actually don’t want any of these things, it’s just fun to sometimes watch them walk away frustrated. Why would I want peace in the Middle East, when the opposite affords me the opportunity to sit on a tank during the hottest part of the day next to the Tigris River.

Old bayonets seem to be more prevalent than the trash that litters the Iraqi landscape. There are so many kids selling bayonets that one really overzealous annoying NCO has made it his personal crusade to get rid of every one. He doesn’t seem to realize, even though our platoon Sgt. has reminded him twice, that there are no laws prohibiting the carrying or selling of bayonets. They’re allowed to carry an AK-47 for Allah’s sake, why the hell wouldn’t they be allowed to sell an old rusty bayonet.

One morning, as we were walking up to relieve this jackass NCO and another guy, I noticed a group of people standing on our side of the bridge. The jackass in question could be seen in the middle of this crowd as he hurled two bayonets in the river. God, he’s doing it again. What is it with this guy? He creates unnecessary drama everywhere he goes and annoys the hell out of everybody in the process. The poor kids crying, while his dad tries to smooth things over with jackass. Then jackass tells me before leaving to do the same if I see any. Whatever dude, just go away. After he’s gone, we call the kid over and give him five dollars a piece. This will at least cover his expenses. What jackass also fails to realize is that a lot of these kids are putting food on their family’s table by selling things like bayonets to passing convoys.

The kid is happy again, and I feel like we’ve saved at least one family from hating us. Hell, we might have even made us a little safer. I told him that we don’t care if he sells bayonets, just don’t do it when the crazy tall guy with red hair is on guard. He understood and said thank you. His dad, the proprietor of the five star Tigris Restaurant, thanked us as well and gave us a couple of cold generic colas.

The Tigris Restaurant. I didn’t know if someone had painted it on the tiny stone structure as a joke or not. It stands on our side of the river about 15 feet from the edge of the bridge. There’s nothing inside except what the man brings with him in the morning. He sells little sandwiches with lamb meat, bread, and drinks. He wasn’t open for business until about three weeks ago. The bread is good, especially if you have some peanut butter from an MRE. The generic coke isn’t bad either, but we try to stay away from the lamb meat.

This past week the Battalion Commander and the Brigade Sergeant Major graced us with their presence. I like our Battalion Commander. He played football when he was at West Point and has that football player mentality. A lot of officers put you to sleep with their speeches, but this guy actually inspires you to want to go out and kill some bad guys. He also has a good sense of humor, which seems to be lacking in the majority of the officer corps. Most officers are basically dorks. This guy is far from what I would consider a dork. He’s still built like a football player, with a compact frame and stocky build. His short, powerful physique, bald head, and boisterous voice impart an old school presence. This guy isn’t a politician. He’s ready to lead men into battle. Hollywood couldn’t produce a character like him. He’s the real deal, and no actor could ever hope to replicate his almost comic book persona. As if wanting to convey the complete image of a man not to screw with, he can always be seen with a fat cigar hanging either from his mouth or between his meaty fingers. I can’t help but smile when he ends his speech with these words, “We’re going to close with and destroy our great nation’s enemies with speed, firepower, and shock effect!” When he says it, you actually believe it and want to follow him.

The Brigade Sergeant Major showed up one day as well, complete with knee and elbow pads. Nobody wears knee and elbow pads. Maybe he’s planning on having to low crawl sometime soon. Anyway, like I said, the Brigade Sergeant Major showed up the other day. Life at the bridge, I may even miss it.

Note: I've tried unsuccessfully to post pictures that related to this post. It's diffucult because we aren't supposed to download programs to these computers. I think there is a way to post pics using the html tab. I'm thinking of starting a yahoo group where I can post pictures. Anyway, I'll keep trying.

17 Comments:

Blogger strykeraunt said...

This post reminded me of some of the stories one of my nephews shared about his experience in Iraq. First, I hate the heat, it zaps my energy like nothing else. However, I promised myself that I would never again complain about my discomfort with the heat because it doesn't even begin to compare to the discomfort felt by the soldiers who are serving in Iraq. The whole idea that someone could function when the temperature is so hot outside is bad enough, Then add all of the uniform, vest, helmet, etc. to the mix and the conditions seem unimaginable for anyone except those who actually have to live with it day in and day out for months on end.

My nephew's year long tour in the Tikrit area, was mostly without luxuries of an air conditioner for relief. Most of the time their shower facility was an outside spickit surrounded by a curtain. The water was too hot (boiling) during the day to shower. And at the end of the summer, the night air became too cold.

Yes, and there is also a "guard the bridge" duty story he shared...he too was not real fond of it. He also spoke of the situation with helping the Iraqi workers too much. They were instructed that they were not to help them because the Iraqi workers needed to learn to help themselves. Its a tough stance to take (it basically like teaching a child responsibility), but is necessary if they are going to build a country with a strong and stable democracy. My nephew said that it was sometimes too difficult to just stand by and watch as the workers would try to figure it out on their own...its a real tough balancing act. Not giving them water does sound cruel, however, as long as you continue to provide it, they will continue to not take the responsibility to bring their own.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Huntress said...

Great post as usual! Several thoughts come to mind:

About the Iraqi's that don't wave or just stare at you...I don't think its that they hate you, Michael, its that they distrust any army...it brings back the all too recent memories of Saddams henchmen...who abused the Iraqi citizens for many many years.
Endemic in the Arab culture is a distrust of each other as well as Afrangi meaning foreigners.

They are uncertain how to react to you from years of being abused by Saddams Army.

I agree that the "Gimme Gimme " habit of theirs is counter-productive..and will have to change as democracy grows.

Reading about the convoy of Iraqi troups that crossed over the bridge...choked me up....I can see them so clearly...being so proud of what they are doing to help secure Iraq and ensure that the seeds of freedom and democracy that were planted continue to grow.

They risk their lives, for democracy, for their new Iraq, more so now, as they are being targeted more aggressively by the terrorists. I admire and respect them greatly for chosing courage rather than fear...because courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because its the quality that gurantees all others.

Stay safe!

3:20 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

What a refreshing post from someone serving in Iraq. I recently read a Blog of a Marine from Texas. He shared his favorite picture with us; a marine punching a bound prisoner in the face. I don't get it. It sickens me. I wish for your safe return.

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You obviously had a lot of time on your hands to think and your post reflects that. Excellent! Keep it up. Your descriptions are so much an improvement over other media attempts. You say more with your words than they do with their photos.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Rob Gutkowski said...

The heat, the life sucking heat. I'll be back there in February.

Your posts are great, I wish you nothing more than safety and a swift return home, but keep writing.

BTW, they call it a torch because that is what the Brits call a flashlight, and most of their English instruction comes out of British textbooks.

"meester, meester" that call will ring in my ears until the day I die.

In a way, I wish I was there with you. I speak the language, I could probably do more for the war effort interpreting at a TCP than I could in some HQ. The best times I had were the times I could slip the leash and go out with the patrols or the MEDCAPS, well, except for the getting shot at part, but I am sure you understand.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Impacted Wisdom Truth said...

I agree with the commenter above re: Iraqis not looking at you. I read from an Iraqi blogger that even turning one's head to look at an Iraqi government building could get an Iraqi "disappeared" during Saddam's regime. So there are probably people that are afraid to even look at you for fear they will be arrested...for simply looking.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Impacted Wisdom Truth said...

Oh, by the way. I added you to my blogroll.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Monkey said...

I am medically retired from the Army. I do not wish to be in your shoes. But I just wanted to say kudos to you and every other soldier that is there, doing what they can, however they can.

Your posts are so descriptive, I feel like I am there with you. Keep writing, it will help with the stress and drama of it all.

Hugs to you. Be as safe as you can. I truly hope you get to come home soon. Congrats on your new baby.

12:23 AM  
Blogger NOTR said...

Michael,
Another compelling read. Keep writing for us REMFs. Stay safe.

4:22 AM  
Anonymous Garry in Texas said...

Good job May you be safe and back home soon.
Old Soldier

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that you can post (for free*) images at http://photobucket.com

That might work for you.

* I'm not 100% sure its free, about 98%

=) Cheers.

1:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From a Marine to your plight, try this:

http://www.imageshack.ws/

[free uploading of pic's no program required] nor sign in/registration. instant and quick linkage- highly recommended with no strings attached. Semper Fi!

You are a great writer who knows how to conceal your identity well. Don't ever lose that camouflaged stance!

3:37 AM  
Blogger Al's Girl said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Al's Girl said...

Wow. Every time I read one of your posts I have a combination of a lump in my throat in my throat and a smirk on my face. Most importantly, I always walk away having learned something about the human condition. Thank you.

I use photobucket for my fiance's blog - it's 100% free ;)

Thank you for all you do.

One more day for Iraq - one more day until you're home.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous PeteM said...

Just A short Thank You note, Thank you for your service to our Nation and the people of Iraq. And many thanks for sharing your Life with us. You are a artist. Stay safe.
G.B.

10:59 AM  
Blogger dbig said...

Hello everyone, I am the tall redheaded jackass so referred to in this report. One thing the writer (whom I know) fails to report about is that these kids are also starting fights with these rusty bayonets. and can you imagine the trouble the troops would be in if a civilian were to be killed while we stode by and did nothing. While the writer may blast me for my actions, our mission is to save lives, all lives.So if he has a problem with me doing my duty he needs to tell me to my face. Not scream to the world and do nothing. I will continue to do my job until follow on forces relieve us all, including him. I do not like to be the bad guy, but sometimes I have to be. Ask those kids they will tell you the same thing. We are to protect and inforce the peace. Including the writer!!!

11:37 AM  
Blogger Ben Sutherland said...

Michael:):):):):):)...

Very nice posts:):):):):):)...

It's very nice to read about what's going on first hand, there, and to hear about it from an author who has such clear compassion for the people for whom he is fighting:):):)...

You've got it figured out, as far as the water and the bayonets, by the way, Michael...

Obviously folks who rationalize the terrible conditions that Iraqis live in because they "don't know to take care of themselves" have never actually lived in those conditions...it's a terrible situation that Iraqis are and always have been in...

The major problem is the lack of FREEDOM for Iraqis to develop the kinds of communities and markets and openness and habits of generosity and support and helping one another that you and I take for granted back in the states...the Iraqis need to learn to take care of themselves, that's for sure...but they also need to learn the the REALLY GREAT habits of generosity and compassion and decency that you are clearly an example for, Michael:):):):):)...I've never seen a country after the ruins of totalitarianism have been removed...but I can imagine that totalitarianism and repression
do create some dependencies...but in addition to teaching the Iraqis self-reliance...they also need to learn your's and America's generosity and support for one another when they lack...noone in America makes it COMPLETELY on their own...and noone in Iraq will or should need to...as the Beatles sing:):):):):):)...we all get by with a little help from our friends:):):):):):)...and the Iraqis are no different:):):):):):)...

It is an honor to watch and appreciate your example, Michael, and its presence in a place where it's needed:):):):):):)...

dbig...I know you're just wanting to keep those kids safe...butyou probably want to be thinking about EVERYTHING that's going on, not just what's most apparent in the moment...those kids and folks need to care for their basic needs...and I think Michael's probably right that it's those needs -- and not the swords -- that are the real issue, there:):)...you might learn from and follow Michael's example of being thoughtful about those needs, more than just being concerned about the immediacy of your concerns about the swords...

I'm kind of ambivalent, Michael, about the sense of "adventure"...on the one hand, I COMPLETELY understand the need to get out from the confinement:):):):):):)...on the other hand...I hope and know, really, that you don't take the fighting and killing lightly...killing is necessary, sometimes...but I hope we never revel in it...I definitely get the sense from you that you're someone who takes that responsibility, seriously:):)...and who cares about the people of Iraq, even as you do your duty:):):)...

I'm definitely thinking about joining you all out there:):):)...I have been for almost a year and a half, now...I just need to be sure that folks in leadership care about EVERY LIFE --especially mine, if I'm going to risk it -- and not just about their own rear ends...I'm just not confident enough about that yet...but as I do get more confident of that, I'll more be more willing to join you...

Freeing Iraq is a very important mission, I think, Michael...and God knows that the most thoughtful Iraqis have got to know in their hearts that things are getting better:):):):):):)...

I don't know what those Iraqis you see in the street are thinking, frankly...clearly...many Iraqis think of soldiers as occupiers...otherwise there'd be no political support for what the insurgents and terrorists are doing...

But many -- hopefully most of them -- have to know...and I think YOU know...and need to know in your heart...that the highest ideals in Iraq that EVERYONE aspires to -- even as we all fall short -- are to free them from a bloody dictator...and to begin to support them in developing new thinking and attitudes toward democracy...and freedom...later, markets...and the sense of more authentic community that will help care for their needs much ideally, as is done in America:):):):):):)...

Your stories about New York (above:):):), remind me of when I first visited New York...the summer of 1998:):):):):):)...your description of it the first time you go is RIGHT ON:):):):):):)...it's such an amazing, exciting, exhilirating place, isn't it, Michael?:):):):):):)...

My girlfriend at the time and I went to a Broadway show:):):)...You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown:):):):):):)...I thought it would epitomize EVERYTHING I HATED about musicals:):):):):):)...but it was AWESOME:):):):):):)...Snoopy (Bart someone:):) and Sally (Kristen Chenowith) won best actor and best actress Tonies, that year:):):):):):)...and TOTALLY deserved them:):):):):):)...it was a really magical trip:):):):):):)...we paid $45 for parking:):):):):):)...and $100 for some shitty little tiny motel room:):):):):):)...but it was a MAGICAL time in my life:):):):):):)...

Thanks for sharing the memories with us, Michael:):):):):):)...

I hope you take care, Michael...I hope with every fiber of being that you come home safe...and perhaps I'll be there, soon, to relieve you, so to speak:):):):):):)...

Keep Mr. Cash close to your heart:):):)...especially that album:):):):):):):)...his cover of Depeche Mode's My Own Personal Jesus is AMAZING:):):):):):)...he's great for the soul, isn't he Michael:):):)...

My thoughts are very much with you, Michael:):):)...I'll be back:):):)...

Much love, Michael...

Ben Sutherland
Lawrence, KS
http://benfrankln.tripod.com/bensutherland/
http://benfrankln.blogspot.com/
benfrankln@yahoo.com
bfrankln@hotmail.com

9:50 AM  

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