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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Video Wedding LizAndMikeWedding.png
So there I was . . .

That's how all good sea stories start out. So there I was, sitting in Twenty-nine Palms, California with a battalion of Marines getting ready to go to war, and my fiancee wants to get married.

And this is a good sea story, so that's how this story starts.

My fiancee, Liz, suddenly changed her mind about when we should marry. I had suggested many times that we should get married before I got mobilized but she wanted to wait until I returned so we could have a nice ceremony and do everything just right. I asked so many times, and gave so many reasons why we shouldn't wait, that I finally realized that further requests just might, maybe, kind of could be testing her patience.

So, coming from a long line of men who have been husbands, I knew that there is a time to stop asking and just let things be. I'm pretty sure that this was one of those times.

But then something happened to change things. We had one of those magical times that come only once in a blue moon. For two nights before I left our home in Texas, we stayed in a luxury hotel on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. What a wonderful romantic place. Everything went just right, we couldn't ask for a better spot to say goodbye.

I think that's what changed her mind. So there I was. Sitting on a slab of cement in the middle of the Mojave Desert sending text messages back and forth to Liz, when she suddenly came up with the idea of getting married before I left for Iraq.

Now, did I mention that I come from a long line of husbands? I think some genetic, survival of the fittest trait surfaced and I was smart enough to not let on that this was not, in fact, a new idea. But now it was an idea she likes, so that made it new enough.

But here's the hard part. I'm in California training in an infantry battalion getting ready to go to war, and Liz is in Texas. I can't get leave or liberty. I can hardly get a few hours off. To top things off, I can't get married over a standard phone because she's Deaf. If we're going to do this right, it's going to have to be a marriage over video relay.

Liz has a SorensonVRS Video Phone, so I thought it should be a snap to connect with the military version -- if I could find a military video teleconference console. I had heard vague rumors that the Commanding General had a VTC, but I needed to find it and get permission to use it.

A few days later, after Liz had scurried all over Austin, Texas getting the marriage paperwork completed, I happened to be out of the field and at the main base computer training center. By now, my search was reaching desperate levels, and I mentioned my need for a VTC to just about everyone I saw.

But this time Liz and I lucked out. The training department had access to a very fancy VTC, but they needed permission to use it for non-work purposes.

Suddenly things started to converge, the universe circled around us for a brief time and one by one in rapid succession everything fell into place.

Liz found a preacher in Austin who ministers to the Deaf and whose son was overseas in the Marine Corps. In fact his son was in the battalion that changed places with my battalion when we got to Iraq. Pastor Seeger was more than happy to help.

Then the USMC came through. The next morning early, I made a special trip just to see what I might need to do to get permission to use the Marine video relay, and I got caught in a whirlwind.

I was told to report to a conference room, and while I sat there I could see a video screen with data techs from all over the Marine Corps, from Camp Pendleton, California to Quantico, Virginia working to get me hitched. Hmmm. Maybe they thought it was a re-enlistment! But I'm here to tell you, I've never been so impressed. Crisp professional voices, interspersed with images of data engineers with sleek headsets were coming out of the video relay. I felt like I was at NASA's mission control.

Maybe they thought it was romantic and wanted to join in the effort. Maybe they thought it was good training for future needs. Maybe they just thought it was important to take care of a Marine before sending him to war. I can't say why for sure, but I do know this. There I was, sitting in the Mojave Desert and the networking masters of the USMC were busting down firewalls, bridging across video relay protocols, and re-engineering the arcane mysteries of a military network just to get two people in love married.

I can't say enough to thank the engineers at Sorenson, the engineers with the Marine Corps, and all the people along the way who did just the right things to make it happen. Talking with Liz and seeing her exchange vows with me would never have been possible even just a few years ago. Technology, and the people who make this technology and make it run, have made our lives richer.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Sgt Brad Harper, Rest in Peace Harper1.png
We lost six snipers the other day. The circumstances behind their deaths are still being examined and I'm not sure what is classified, all I can say is that we were all stunned. Then the next day a bomb blew up an amphibious tractor and killed fourteen Marines and one Iraqi interpreter. 

All these men were good men, and men that will be missed. I worked closely with one of them many times since we've been in Iraq, the rest I didn't know well. I was in Camp Hit chatting with my wife on the internet when word came to shut down the network. We were in "River City," the code word we use whenever an American in our regiment is killed. We shut down the internet and phones until their families are informed. It's a nuisance, but I haven't yet heard a single Marine complain or try to get around this rule. Everyone understands why.

Then came the word that fifteen were dead. Foolishly, someone said that "we're trying to keep the number of people killed from being spread around." I don't know whom they were kidding, but even as a staff officer it was difficult for me to get the details of what happened.

That night I left Camp Hit and returned to the dam. Only then did I learn the names of the men killed. Most were from Lima Company and I didn't know them well, but when I heard one name I was shaken to the core. This is my semblance of a eulogy for him. I will miss him a lot.
His name was Sgt Harper.  He was one of the best.  Tall, good looking, wonderful personality.  Gentle, professional.  He and his crew were the best small unit I've ever seen in the Marines.  When we were in enemy territory we often set up in a building, they didn't have much to do because their trac was the combat operations center and didn't move once we set it in place for the day.  Instead of wasting time, they taught each other classes, any classes.  Music theory, math, bible studies, police procedures, whatever one of them had any knowledge of.  They had a rule that no matter what was taught, it had to be treated seriously and all had to attend and be polite.  I enjoyed watching their classes.

He was once part of 3/25 and was a radioman.  But he lived in Virginia so he left the battalion and joined 4th AAV Battalion, whose Company A was in Little Creek, Virginia.  By coincidence, that company has been attached to us over here in Iraq.  He knew all the comm Marines here and they kept raving to me what a great guy he is. 

You'd never meet a more pleasant man.  I remember when I first met him, I mistook his gentle professionalism for something else.  He was too good to believe.  His offers to help, his friendly conversation, his concern for others seemed too good and had to be fake.  But it was true, and I soon regretted my initial aloofness towards him.  After working with him for these past months I learned just how great a man he was.

Out in the field, or back in garrison, he and his running mate, Sgt Hixon, were first to get things done and got them done right and they always helped out more than their fair share.  They ran the tractor that is configured as a command and control vehicle, so I was their primary customer.  I had them set their vehicle up the way I wanted to support the ops officer.  They took on every challenge with a cheerful smile and helpful suggestions and never once did I have to wonder if their work was done.  It was beyond comprehension that they wouldn't do it better than requested, and I asked for a lot.  They demanded the highest standards from their crew, and they were inseparable. 

I need to find his wife's address and write her a letter.  She needs to know that everyone else that met him knew what kind of man he was, and I for one am very hurt that he is gone now.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Fishing for Rifles
The 3/25 Communications shop is breaking its arms to support the Marines in Haditha Dam. First, a corporal supporting us from the regiment decided to take a short cut down a hill, tripped on the concertina at the bottom and broke his arm. Then a satellite technician was helping build a shelter and he fell back and in an odd fluke put a hairline fracture in his wrist.

But the one that takes the cake for drama is when Sgt M fell down a 65 foot hole.

Sgt M is one of the 4th Recon Marines like me that were joined with 3d Battalion, 25th Marines to come out here in Iraq. As the battalion wire chief sometimes, well, often times it falls on him to run wire through the huge complex here, running wires under the dam gates, over cranes, through machinery spaces, and the job never seems to end. But one place he ran wire he never should have gone, down an access hole that was filled with 25 feet of water. 

Sgt M was working with another Marine stringing wire from the top of the dam to a platform ten stories below, when he stepped back, tripped on a rock and fell down the hole.

It's a good thing he was running wire, because he still had the wire in his hands as he fell. This kept him upright as he plunged 40 feet into the stinking water below. The hole is only about three feet by ten feet, and he banged his arm on some bars that were sticking out of the concrete halfway down.

The first I heard of this was when his work partner stepped breathlessly into the comm shop and announced with the self-contradictory statement, "Sgt. M is okay, he broke his arm." Luckily it turned out that he didn't break his arm, but it sure was black and blue. Oh, and he has wire burns on his hands!

So Sgt M is safe and sound and all parties are happy. Well, not all. You see, Sgt M, as is the rule here, had his rifle on his shoulder when gravity showed him who was boss. And his rifle sling snapped and left his rifle at the bottom of the water. All were not happy because the Marine Corps doesn't like to lose rifles.

Luckily, the battalion staff learned that the Navy has some divers in the area. Navy divers in the middle of the Iraqi desert must be really bored because they agreed to travel out to the dam and retrieve the rifle.

It only took an hour to get set up, and ten minutes in the water, and Sgt M' rifle was safely back in the armory, satisfying the Marine Corps and some nervous armorers. I explained to him that I don't ever want to see him with a rusty rifle again.

Here's Sgt M. holding his old rifle, right after the divers pulled it out of the hole.