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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Feeding Sparrows in Iraq
I tossed bread crumbs to sparrows, but they didn't pick them up. Sparrows in Iraq don't know that people sometimes toss food to them.

I finally gave up, put on my war gear and climbed into the amtrac. A short time later we were in the town.

Tanks rolled in with the amtracs, helicopters inserted while cobras and huey gunships flew overhead, fighter jets kept watch and the Marines swarmed the town. It must have been intimidating to most of the people there. People in Al Anbar don't seem to know that Marines are there to help them.
We took possession of a recreation center, and used it as a headquarters. It was one of the nicer buildings I'd been in since arriving in this country, but that's not saying much. It looks like it hasn't been used in a year or so. New wrestling shoes were stacked up in a room, all still in their boxes. All the furniture was stacked in the auditorium. A window was broken. All the rooms were empty. It had the usual haji electrical system, wires running here and there, a fire hazard, but better than most places.

Children, like rodents, were outside demanding that we give them soccer balls. Ill manners are a feature of Iraqis, don't let anyone convince you otherwise. They all lie, they all live like pigs. None of them understand that they are responsible for their own country.

If you took 1000 Americans and plopped them in Al Anbar province, they would have a thriving economy in a few months. They would kill off the muj, they would irrigate the fields, they would make something out of what they have. They wouldn't tolerate murderers among them.

But the Iraqis do tolerate them. They let fear control them. They are cows.

The other day I saw some sparrows eating bread crumbs I had tossed to them an hour earlier. I tossed a few more but they flew away again. Someday the sparrows will learn that the breadcrumbs being tossed are the same ones they enjoyed.

We will liberate Iraq from the murderers. We will allow them to free themselves, it's been happening throughout the rest of the country and it will happen here. Someday the Iraqis will learn that the only way to win their freedom is to take charge of their towns themselves.

Until then, tanks will roll and Marines will knock on their doors asking for names of the muj. Someday they will learn.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Learning the Easy Way
The nozzle was heavy, but there were a hundred guys behind me helping hold the fire hose. A fire raged in front of me. It was hot out, and we had protective gear on making it hotter, and the flames just made it worse. Working with the team, I opened the nozzle and aimed the stream of water at the base of the flame. Lot's of shouting, commands being issued, and the fire went dutifully out when the training Chief turned off the gas supply. I was now officially qualified to go aboard ship as a midshipman with a check in the box for firefighting school.

But that wasn't what I really learned that day. Shortly after, I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life, one that I think back to often while out here in combat operations.
Once I finished pretending I put out the fire, I stripped off the fire hat and coat and whatever other gear and I took my turn as the safety watch while the next guy had a turn pretending to put out the fire. Easy enough, right?

For some reason, and I can't remember why, I was soaked with water, as were we all. My feet were sloshing in my boots. The safety watch job was to stand by a big red round valve handle sticking out of the ground, and if something happened, something like a hose breaking, my job was to shut off the water through that valve.

But the problem is that I was stupid. Just another dumb teenaged kid with no grasp of the reality of this job. Like everyone who finished before me, I didn't take the job seriously. I laughed and joked, and I even sat on the ground and propped my feet on the valve so that the water would pour out of my combat boots.

Another ten minutes passed and the midshipman behind me finished qualifying, and came to relieve me of my boot draining job.

I don't remember his name. I only remember that he was a few years older, prior enlisted. And then something happened that has stayed with me until today. A minute after I relinquished the safety watch, the fire hose coupling broke.

I've experienced garden hoses getting loose before. A loose garden hose will knock you silly until you get it under control. A fire hose, in contrast, will kill people and make large holes in things like walls, helmets, heads. It will break bones. It will smash faces. A loose fire hose is a very bad thing.

But I didn't see the hose get loose. I saw the coupling break, I saw water spray for a second, and then the hose fell limply to the ground. The midshipman on watch saw the coupling break, and turned off the valve with super human speed. A disaster was averted.

The realization of what happened shamed me. If that hose had burst just a few minutes earlier, there is no way I would have shut off the water that fast. First, I would have to turn around, on my butt, and see the coupling break. Then I would have to jump to my feet and start turning the valve. A few of my friends might have had a chunk of brass in their skulls by then.

I was lucky. My shipmates were luckier. How fortunate that a more mature man was on watch.

Ever since then, I watch for safety briefs and take them with the utmost of seriousness. And now as an officer in combat I try to apply this lesson to the Marines in my charge.

One of the more common causes of death over here is when vehicles run people over in the dark. At night Marines will find a spot to sleep, hopefully in a camp. But they may not realize that some truck or tank driver thinks that same spot is a nice pathway. For that reason, all vehicles in troop areas have to have a ground guide to make sure the way is clear. The ground guide walks in front, while the vehicle creeps slowly behind him.

The other day I was waiting for a convoy, it was about 5am and still dark. The escort vehicles were getting in place and had their ground guides. But the ground guide for the lead vehicle, either because he was tired, complacent, or just plain stupid, wasn't paying attention. He was just going through the motions. While he trudged along, the vehicle he was guiding was too close to the curb and an overhanging eucalyptus tree bough. The packs hanging from the side of the truck were slowly sheared off their straps while I watched.

I quickly jumped over and stopped the vehicle and had it back up, but it was too late. Two Marines now have packs without shoulder straps.

It took me a while to find the NCO in charge of the security detail. In fact I found the company commander first, a strong captain of Marines. I discussed with him my concern that his Marines are either tired, complacent, or stupid.

The poor sergeant. I think his morning got off to a bad start after that. I heard some yelling during his convoy brief, with some comments about "I just got my butt chewed because of an idiot ground guide" or words to that effect.

That's one of the benefits of being older. You can remember all the dumb things you did. Sometimes the wisdom from experience really comes from at one time being very stupid.

I feel bad for ruining his day. I really do, he's a great NCO. But I hope that his ground guide gets to learn the easy way about how important safety watches are. Just like I did.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Giving and Taking
The chaplain, the battalion commander, and a few others stood one at a time in the front of the company formation. They were sharing their words and thoughts in a formal, somber, formulaic way. We've lost one of our own, a communications Marine that served with Kilo Company.

The ceremony was rehearsed by everyone in the ceremony. It seemed odd that the entire company practiced the formation for an hour or two. Then with no break they announced that the real ceremony was to begin. It was odd. But it seemed proper to spend the extra time to do the job right, even though no one besides us was watching.

But one of the phrases used by the speakers is one that is commonly used so freely today. They say that Cpl Richardson gave his life for his country. No he didn't. It was taken.

Words mean things. When a Marine jumps on a live grenade with the intent of saving those around him, it is proper to say that this Marine gave his life for others.

But to say that a Marine riding in an up-armored humm-vee when it rolls over an anti-tank mine gave his life for his country, I cringe.

It demeans his death to not seriously understand how he died. Cpl Richardson, and most Marines would never give their life to roll over a mine. He would never give his life so uselessly. His life was taken by murderous animals. 

His death does not inspire us in itself. No one should jump in the back seat of a truck just to be like him. Because his life was taken, though, we should be inspired to redouble our efforts to slaughter our enemy, remove these vermin from the face of the Earth, to wipe out the violent, oppressive, and anti-living religion of Islam.

That's what we should remember Cpl Richardson for.