Thursday, December 16, 2004

News from Iraq

So, I was sitting here today considering what to post on my blog.

I was gonna post some more rantings on the idiocy surrounding the Washington State Governor's race,( and trust me, there's plenty to rant about) but a co-worker got this from a friend in Iraq and forwarded it to me. I thought I might interest some of you.

When I consider my living and sleeping conditions, my drive to work, and my working environment, I feel a little sheepish considering how others live.

I can't change anything in my life to make a difference to this person, but I can at least add him to my prayers, along with the rest of the men and women serving.

This is not a spam letter, this is real. Names have been withheld for obvious reasons.


I am presently working at the American Embassy in Baghdad in the Governorate Support Team (GST). The GST is a team of twenty Special Operations Civil Affairs soldiers that act as the liaison between the American military and the various ministries of the Iraqi government. We focus mainly on reconstructing the Iraqi infrastructure. I am in charge of Education. I am currently working to refurbish several hundred schools in the Governorate of Baghdad.

The American Embassy is located on the Western bank of the Tigris River in an area of downtown Baghdad known as the "Green Zone." The Green Zone is a restricted area that is home to the American military command, the American Embassy and most of the Interim Iraqi Government. The Embassy is the Old Presidential Palace of Saddam Hussein and is surrounded by a fortified compound. The Old Presidential Palace is a beautiful building that is roughly two to three times the size of our White House. It is safe from direct gun fire, but is still vulnerable to rocket and mortar attacks.

The environment I find myself in is like nothing I have ever experienced before. Everything is always covered in a fine layer of sand, including yourself, no matter how often you clean up. There always seems to be one, and just one, annoying fly buzzing around your head. Gunfire at a variety of distances is very common with the occasional explosion thrown in for good measure. Helicopters and fighters fly over the Embassy about every half hour 24 hours a day. It seems like there is always something burning somewhere when you look around outside. The air smells of burning trash most of the time. Sometimes I feel like I am stuck in a really, really long war movie with a 360 degree screen.

I live in a trailer in a small trailer park surrounded by sandbags behind the Embassy. When you think of a trailer, I am sure you are wondering if it is a "single wide" or "double wide." My little abode is more akin to the size and quality of the shed you put your lawn mower in. There is just enough space in my 6 x 8 room for two beds, two lockers and a small refrigerator. There is a small wall mounted air conditioner that has two temperatures, too cold and too hot. I also have one small window, but it is covered by cardboard so it won't shatter in case of indirect fire.

My daily schedule is pretty simple over here. I wake up at 5:30 am, shave, take a three minute shower (that is all of the hot water available), put my uniform, helmet, armor vest and weapons on (about 40 pounds of gear), and walk to the GST office. It is about a ten minute walk from my trailer to the office inside the Embassy. I am in the office by 6:30 -6:45 am and begin my work day. Once in the office, it is usually 12 to 14 hours of email, phone calls, and meetings. Aside from a cup of coffee, I seldom get a chance to eat breakfast, but try to get to lunch and dinner everyday in the Embassy Cafeteria. These are my only breaks during the day. I head back to the trailer some time after 9:00 pm and try to get to sleep by 11:00 pm. This is my life six days a week. I get a day off on Saturday which is pretty much reserved for laundry, watching a DVD or two on my laptop and catching up on sleep.

It is quite an experience when I have to go to meetings outside of the Green Zone, for example, when I have to go to the Ministry of Education. To travel outside the Green Zone, you have to travel in a convoy of four or more armored Hummvees for protection. The Ministry of Education is on the other side of the river, about half an hour away from the Embassy. To get there, the drivers of the Hummvees have to "drive like they just stole it" with their hand on the horn the whole way as a defensive technique. If you get stuck in traffic, your chances of getting shot at, rocketed or bombed increase dramatically. The drivers go well over the speed limit and drive anywhere there is space to fit a Hummvee. It is not uncommon to drive down medians, on the sidewalks or on the other side of the road into oncoming traffic. It is kind of like the military version of the video game "Frogger." Once you get to your destination, the convoy pulls security outside of your meeting place and you conduct your business. Once you are done, you repeat the convoy process back. I haven't had any problems so far on a convoy, but some of my co-workers in the GST have been shot at and one of them recently had a grenade thrown at him. Fortunately, trip outside of the Green Zone are a rarity for me.

Going on a convoy isn't the only risk over here for me, the war also make house calls to the Embassy and the Green Zone. About once a month or so, a suicide bomber gets into the Green Zone to blow something up. After the October Green Zone Market suicide bombing that killed several Americans, security has been increased. Every couple of days there are rocket attacks here, but it is only a few rockets at a time. So far in the past month, about ten people have been killed and about thirty wounded from rocket attacks, almost all of them guards that work outside. The enemy likes to attack the Green Zone checkpoints too. 20 people have been killed and the same number wounded by two car bombs at the same checkpoint this week. The checkpoint is only two miles away from my office. Fortunately it has been quiet the past two days.

As you can probably surmise from the two previous paragraphs, death and destruction is never that far away and I pray that none of my colleagues will be hurt or killed. Of the 300 Civil Affairs soldiers that I came over with in September, three have been killed and a hand full hurt. Fortunately, no one in my unit from Syracuse has been injured. The closest person in proximity to me that has been killed over here was a civilian at the Embassy who was shot to death last month. He worked closely with our office and we had to identify his body. This is one of those life events that I will never be able to forget. Nothing will ever quite be the same here after seeing my first dead American.

To be honest, I have become somewhat numb to the world around me and just try to focus on my work. It is sad to say that I can fall asleep to rocket explosions and wake up to machine gun fire without thinking much of it. I have come to the conclusion that worrying about the environment around me is kind of like worrying about earthquakes. You never know when something bad will happen, and when it does, you usually can't do anything about it anyway except ride it out.

So you are probably wondering at this point, is it worth me being here? You bet it is. I feel that I am making a brighter future for fellow human beings, regardless of their nationality. I think this is a tremendous opportunity for the common man like me to make a difference in the world and give something back to our country in the process. I have met a good number of Iraqis and they have all been decent people who deserve better out of life. The average Iraqi just wants to go to work, support their families and be left in peace. Unfortunately a very small, violent minority is ruining it for the rest. Hopefully the work that I do will eventually improve the lives of the Iraqi people.

I ask that you use care when forming opinions about Iraq. We watch the same news here in Iraq that you watch and I honestly have to say that you are only hearing about a third of the story. I would categorize what you hear as the "bad news." The other two thirds are the "really bad news" and the "really good news."

With the really bad news, you don't hear about the rampant Iraqi on Iraqi violence or the poor living conditions the Iraqi people have to contend with, conditions that existed even before the war. The really good news is how the American military is doing everything within its power to change the really bad news. Unfortunately it seems that both types of news go largely unreported because it doesn't sell newspapers, improve ratings or support anyone's political agenda. I can honestly say from what I have seen here that we are bending over backwards to help the Iraqi people with the resources we have. Again, it is the small, violent minority in Iraq that is slowing our progress. I feel that the Iraqi people, with our help, will eventually overcome their current situation.

Well, I have to get going now. I hope what I have written was of interest. I wish you and everyone at home happy holidays and can't wait to return to the States. I miss you all and hope to meet up with you as soon as possible.