Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Team update - 11 Jan 06

Hi everyone.

I’m back. Try to contain your shock; I know you are used to only one entry every three weeks. Well, Christmas has come early.

It is now the year 2006. Master Guns has a sheet of paper up on his wall from his daughter with all of the holidays since we got here until we would leave. Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc, etc, etc. The only thing between us and being the hell out of here is now Valentine’s Day. February 14, 2006 will not be here soon enough.

Everyone is still doing well. It is still very strange NOT walking on missions. We have been here a month, so you’d think we would be used to it by now. You would be wrong. Speaking for myself, when we were in the mix of actually walking on the missions, our contribution felt more tangible, more concrete. We were right there outside the wire with the guys we were mentoring; we were often THE link between the American force we were supporting and the Iraqis of 3-2-1. We were leading by example by sharing the same risks as they, walking the same streets, engaging the same people and the same enemy. Now, our operations schedule is not NEARLY as busy as it had been in east Ramadi, or even Habbaniyah, but the strangest thing is still being a part of the plan as before, but waving the kids off to school when they mount up in the Marine MTVR trucks and head out on mission. We are now focusing on the next level, on company and battalion level ops, but the battalion staff is so thin that this is going to be a long-term project that we – in our remaining time here – will only be able to begin, not finish.

Since we aren’t walking on missions, my primary source of things to write about has become much thinner. Our big issues these days are the following (in no particular order):

1. Keeping the jundee out of the base trashpile / dump (known to the Iraqis as the “supermarket” because of the vast amount of useable stuff thrown away by we “Ameriki”). As an American taxpayer, you people would lose it if you saw what we are throwing away out there. It is inexcusable. The IA-s are cleared to go there, but must escorted by one of us. I think the main reason for this is to avoid fights between the scavengers (non-American KBR workers, Iraqis from other units, etc.). Also, we act as the last line of sanity if something REALLY weird is found in the trash. Like a rocket.

2. Keeping momentum up on continued improvements on the camp. This includes the continuing work moving the “blackwater” pond. It drained out with this last break; luckily we are slightly uphill. Take a look at the attached pictures. I risked losing my lunch to get them.

3. Juggling operations with Kilo 3/7, rotations with OP Hurriyah, and leave convoys. We are still a part of the planning and scheduling process, ensuring that the logistics are in place for trucks, food, water, etc. (NOTE: I am sure I mentioned this months ago, but every unit in the Iraqi Army has a constant leave cycle going. Generally, one company is out on leave at any given time. This means that a third of your combat power, of your ability to effect the enemy, is GONE. We are not the only unit like this; they all do it. Apparently, they even did this during the Iraq/Iran war from 1980 to 1988. I will shut up now before I get on to my by now MASSIVE soap box).

4. Getting personal stuff in order. This means packing stuff up, starting to work out for the first time since we got in-country (no walking + great chowhall = potential problem).

5. Starting to prep for the Relief In Place / Transfer Of Authority (RIP/TOA). What does this Army term really mean? Trying to finish up (or at least organize) projects we have been working on; trying to get operations and procedures and SOPs in place so that the guys coming in will not have to re-invent the wheel. Gy Ellis has written a great turnover file for his guy; I so far have some great yellow Post-its in my notebook for him. Ahhh, to each his own.

I do have one quick story for you just to show you how bizarre life can still be for us here in Ramadi (well, at least for me). I was flying back from Fallujah last night, returning from our final planning meeting about our retrograde. Got my brigade counterpart to drop me off after dinner to spend a few hours with my former roommate when I was in Hawaii, LtCol Gregg Kendrick (see picture). After slipping on the ubiquitous mud and cracking my chin with the serrated butt of my rifle looking for his office, we sat around and smoked a good cigar for a couple of hours. At 2300, he drops me off at the Fallujah airstrip and I find myself waiting with my old 2/14 battalion CO, Col Hessler, there to fly off to Baghdad. After playing the “whatever happened to so-and-so” game for a while, his flight came, and it was only I and my Iraqi companion, the Bn S-4A (Gy Greene long ago nicknamed him Barney Fife, but that is another story). When our flight showed up at 0200, out we go to the pair of CH-46s waiting on us. Both are traveling to TQ. Getting on one of these things – especially at night – is pretty interesting. A CH-46 is the smaller twin-bladed helicopter the Marines use (the Army’s bigger cousin in the CH-47). Coming out of the blackness like a shadow, you are just enveloped in noise and wind. Once THAT abates, off you go, walking quickly in the darkness with no flashlights (the pilots are flying on NVGs), although the ground crew keep a couple of chemlights on their vests. Static electricity is visible like sparks at the tips of the blades as they rotate, clearly visible with the naked eye. Step up on the back ramp, checking for traction before committing all you weight (leaking hydraulic fluid can make the deck slippery sometimes). Take the first metal and nylon seat you get to after grounding your gear at the rear; place your rifle muzzle down on the deck of the bird (weapons are ALWAYS pointed down on helicopters; if there is a negligent discharge, it will simply go through the floor, while a shot into the overhead could mean a shot into the engines themselves). The crew chief checks everything out, calls to the pilot over his intercom, raises the ramp, and cuts the thin green light off. The RPMs increase, the door gunners verify their .50 cal machine guns are loaded and ready, and suddenly you lift. You’re airborne. Nothing to look at now but the lights out the window across from you, where another Marine (or soldier or sailor or airman or SEAL or Iraqi or civilian journalist or terp or civilian contractor) is sitting, silhouetted against the window. Everyone is armed, some more heavily than others. No one is talking; just too damn loud. 15 minutes later, we’re approaching a sea of blue and white runway lights at TQ. I’m wondering if this guy is coming in too hot and to steep, but he is a pretty good pilot, and it’s a perfect landing. At TQ, everyone but the S-4A and myself are getting off, so we run off the ramp just to get out of the way of the eight IA-s on there and one other Marine. They grab their packs and start moving into the darkness. The S-4A and I get back on the bird and…. Where is my pack? My tan (not green) assault pack, distinctly smaller than the IA packs. The one with my name tape sewn unmistakeably in the back?!?! Holy #@*&, those #*&$@(*@#& stole my pack! I lean into the crew chief and scream into his ear “THEY TOOK MY PACK; HOLD!!!” and off I go, running down what now is about 16-20 Iraqis and a couple of Marines now in a group at some trucks. I run up and after a hasty look at the Iraqis, yell at the nearest Marine (it’s still pretty loud), “ONE OF THEM TOOK MY PACK OFF THE BIRD!” We do a quick look, and guess what, it’s nowhere to be seen. #&E(&$#. I look back at the two helos, now waiting on ME, curse at full volume (which you can’t hear because of the rotors), mentally resolve myself to the fact that Ali F-ing Baba just nailed me, and run back to the helo. Back up to the crew chief standing under the rear rotor, SCREAM into his ear my sad story and tell him if it shows up, to get it to the Ramadi airstrip, where I will check for it in later days. He SCREAMS into my ear that if we are continuing to Ramadi, to move to the second bird, as they will be splitting off to Blue Diamond. @#(*&(@ @(#*&$#(*&. The S-4A and I grab our stuff (which is easy for me now), and jog back to the second bird, which is now loading pallets of mail off a forklift into the back. I see a second chance to check on the Iraqis and find my pack. I SCREAM at this crew chief, jog back, and one of the Marines sees me and says they have looked their guys over and no joy. I realize that the Marine is in fact my bosses’ bosses’ boss, Col Osterman. Great. “HEY, SIR, ARE YOU COLONEL OSTERMAN?” He is. We exchange greetings, I tell him I have to go and thanks for the help, see him soon, and run back to the bird, cussing a blue streak the whole way. We go up the ramp, squeezing past the pallets on the side, dropping our gear there at the rear, a little further than normal because of how much space the pallets are taking. We grab a seat. I am still cursing. The helo starts to taxi, rolling out like a normal fixed-wing aircraft. I hear a weird metallic noise, weird enough to stop my cursing. I look out the back of the helo. The clam-shell top portion is still open, which is normal, but… (weird metallic noise, s-p-a-r-k-s) the damn RAMP is still down!!! Everytime the helo bounces a bit, the ramp sends out a small roostertail of sparks. The pallets are safe from rolling out, but our gear, right there at the back, WILL roll out if he lifts a little too steeply. $(*#$#(*&!!! I SCREAM at the crew chief up at the head of the cabin, “HEY!!!” He looks at me like I’m an idiot until I point to the rear and flap my hand at him: wrist up, wrist down, wrist up, wrist down. Looks like he got it. He jumps up, toggles something, and up the ramp comes. The helo brakes to a halt, and he jumps down the side door to inspect the ramp. All OK. Once back in, the noise grows, the rotors bite into the air, and we lift. Out across Habbaniyah Lake, pretty low, lower than I expect. I am cursing again. It crosses my mind that crash-landing a helicopter in a lake in the desert would just make the night PERFECT, but thankfully, the remainder of the flight is uneventful. In at 0315, jump in the Russkie jeep that Smoke left for me, and off we go. I’m STILL cursing. I sure that the S-4A has learned some new English words tonight, but he’s a great guy – one of the ones who truly holds the future of Iraq in his hands – and he knows why I’m mad. He actually apologized to me this morning for his fellow Iraqis stealing my pack. I told him it wasn’t his fault, and that I had learned a valuable lesson: trust no one. But I do trust him. He is one of the good ones.

OK, so much for my short story. Got to run. Got distracted for a few minutes by Ellis of Ramadi, who has now headed down the passageway to get a cup of chai with his jundi at 2300. Hilarious!

49 days, people, until the “worst-case” aimpoint of 01 March. 49 days…

One more day gone in Ramadi. Taken from OP Horea by SSgt D.
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Capt Hand (3/7 S-4), Top Radke, Gy Roche, and Gy Greene at HP. With all the rain, our Kistler-special bumpers have a little surface rust now. Every Marine who has seen them loves them. They are battering rams, and the manliest freakin' bumpers in theater.
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What happens when the blackwater pond behind your house breaks and drains out? Oh yeah... The HUMMVs in the background are at the rifle range, and give you an idea of scale.
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Gy Roche looking suspicious during a recent trip to Hurricane Point.
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SSgt D at OP Horea in downtown Ramadi. He is NOT checking for license and registration in this picture.
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Doc Magers, our team medic. He is a sergeant, so he is Sgt Magers, which causes some confusion, and I find hilarious. This is he down at OP Horea last week with SSgt D.
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Our hoopty is a little muddy now; Top went 4 wheelin' the other day and had to push out some stuck Iraqi vehicles. It rained again last night, just enough to muddy the place up again. Forecast for tomorrow: rain. Un-freakin'-believeable.
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Team Drifter digging in. You can sense the excitement, can't you?
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Happy 85th birthday, Iraqi Army! Hope the next 85 are a little better than the last.
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