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Monday, September 05, 2005

"But We're Socialists"
I get my hair cut by socialists. The Azerbaijanis here at the dam are great soldiers, very proud of their discipline. When I first got here, it wasn't uncommon to pass an Azerbaijani soldier in the stairs and have him flatten himself against the wall as I passed. They make the Marines look slovenly.

But they're almost all conscripts. They come to the dam as part of the Multi-National 
Forces. They serve here for a year, with no mail allowed. They are not allowed off of the dam. They get no pay until they return home. They live an austere life here. At the chow hall they eat as if they've never had food before. We have to hold our noses to eat, but they pile up their plates every meal.

I sit next to the Azerbaijani commander, Major Shalbuzov, everyday at our staff meeting. Nice guy, very quiet, as are all his soldiers. I've never met so many quiet people before.

By some strange turn of events, I went looking for someone to cut my hair one day. It's a difficult thing for me, I don't like imposing on my Marines to do it, and I'm not clever enough to cut my own hair. I mentioned this conundrum to the Azerbaijanis off-handedly, and they offered to cut my hair for me at their little barber shop.
My first trip to the Azerbaijanis side of the dam had me a bit nervous, because the Iraqis who work and live in the dam are also on that side. I was invited there by Major Shalbuzov, the Azerbaijani commander, he gave me a bottle of wine, which I immediately reported to our executive officer. Alcohol is strictly prohibited here, but I didn't want to offend them by refusing the gift. The XO just laughed and asked, "only one?" Apparently this is the favorite gift the Azerbaijanis give out around here.

Now I was going there to get a haircut. The captain ushered me to their little barbershop and one of their soldiers, who didn't speak a word of English, cut my hair. These guys are all so nice, gentle, and disciplined. I offered to pay him, but he got offended and the captain came over and told me that I had to keep my money. Cutting hair is the soldier's job, and he is happy to do it.

They've rotated about 70% of the company back home, but I still get my haircut there by a new barber. He has the same friendly manner, and they act so happy when I stop by for a haircut.

I've often suggested to the Captain that he should set up the barbershop to cut the Marines' hair for $5 a haircut. He could collect a lot of money for morale items, they are woefully short of comforts. I think a whole lot of Marines would love to take advantage of that service. To me, a product of capitalism, this is a win-win situation. Marines get haircuts, and the Azeri soldiers get money. Everybody is happy!

The captain again refused. No, this is not right, it is our job, we should not be making money. I said, it's great capitalism to provide a service and get paid for it.

His eyes got wide and he said in his subtle accent, "But sir, we're socialists." It's so strange to my ears to hear someone say that with pride.

But then, they're also Muslims. I never dreamed that Muslims would be such nice people. They aren't very religious, to be sure, but they are Muslim in some sort of fashion. I've never seen them pray, I've never seen anything among them that is anything but secular. Perhaps that's the result of their communist past under the Soviet Union.

One time they saw a video projector that was donated to our battalion. The commander loved it so much, he had to have one to take back to Azerbaijan with him. We discussed it and I agreed to procure one for him. He came back with a stack of hundred dollar bills and eventually the projector arrived and everyone was happy.

It's a shame that the major had to buy this with his own money, or his military's money. If they had opened their barbershop up for business, they could have easily raised enough money to pay for it, and lots of other things besides. I hope they change and become capitalists someday, but that's up to them.

The Azerbaijanis, at least from my experience, have been the best of allies and friends to the United States. When we think of the Global War on Terror, we should always remember that other nations, even socialist Muslim nations, are out here on the front lines fighting with us too.

Stepping on the CNO
Skyler's dad has come through with another recollection of his Viet Nam days.

The CNO, Admiral Zumwalt, came aboard the USS Belknap DLG 26 in the late summer of 1971, a few months before I was to be transferred. The crew knew he was coming and we were all in dress whites awaiting his arrival in one hour. I was exiting the passageway onto the 01 level weather deck when unexpectedly I heard him gonged aboard, “CNO Arriving”. I was taken aback when he came climbing up the ladder I was about to descend. What sailor wouldn’t suck in air when suddenly confronted with the view of the top of a hat whose brim was completely covered with gold, and those two huge gold shoulder boards with blinding stars bouncing its way upward. I stepped aside and threw my arm up in a salute. I had never seen a CNO before, much less almost collided with one. My thoughts went to how I almost stepped on his head and how would I explain that to my Captain. What would I tell my wife and children? He ignored me completely. His aides, scampering closely behind him on the ladder returned my salute for him like little children emulating the Daddy they wanted to remember in a better mood. As the CNO passed by I could see his graying long sideburns and scraggly hairs hanging over his ears, reminding me of the crusty old Greyhound bus driver I sat behind on my ride from Miami to Jacksonville many years ago. As he scurried up the next ladder above me I observed his grubby, off-white uniform and his unpolished, heel worn and scuffed, black shoes, I thought, what a way to influence the men of the “New Navy”. What a great way to impress the officers who are required to read his latest Z-Gram (US Navy Policy Memos issued by Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt) to their crew at morning quarters and try to keep some semblance of order, tradition and pride in our chosen profession. (It should be pointed out that the Vietnam War was still in full force and many of our crew had joined the Navy as a way to stay out of getting drafted into the Army and getting sent “in-country”.) Admiral Zumwalt issued 121 directives over four years known as Z-Grams, which sought to change the way the Navy had done things for almost two centuries. In most experienced sailors eyes, he was a complete failure and crippled the Navy immensely.
This CNO visit to the Belknap obviously brought about Z-Gram #102, Responsibility for Standards of Smartness, which was dated 22 Dec 71. I often wondered just whom they had in mind when his aides drafted this one. The entire Z-Gram reads:

1. During recent visits to ships and stations throughout the navy, I have seen indications that a few of our people are interpreting some of the initiatives we have introduced as indicative of a shift to a permissive navy, allowing a relaxation of traditional standards of smartness and cleanliness. In addition, a recent retention study group unanimously stated that there is a need for further definition of acceptable grooming and clothing standards so that this matter can be laid to rest, and all hands can get on with more substantive issues.

2. As an example, Z-57, concerning the elimination of demeaning and abrasive regulations, has been erroneously interpreted by some to suggest that saluting and other military courtesies can be dispensed with. Also, instances are still observed of men in public with dirty or torn uniforms, haircuts and beards which are below Z-70 standards. Therefore, I wish to reemphasize once again, that our new initiatives do not lower our standards of smartness and cleanliness.

3. I have stressed the need to place increased trust in each individual and want to continue and expand this recognition of confidence in him. In return each individual must assume added responsibilities for own appearance, conduct, and performance. In case the latter has not been fully understood, Commanders and Commanding Officers must reemphasize to all hands that military courtesies, including customary saluting and deference to seniors, and adherence to traditional standards of cleanliness, neatness, and smartness will continue to be an integral part of our navy as they have been since our beginning. Those standards are essential elements of a proud and professional force. Commanding officers continue, as always, to have responsibility and full authority to enforce these standards.

Friday, September 02, 2005

How I Spent My Summer Vacation in Iraq
I wrote a little synopsis of my time since being mobilized. Click on the "drivel" link to read it.
It's been a while since I sent out an email to everyone.  I figure now is a good time to get everyone caught up before I come back home in a few weeks.  This is long as it will cover my entire deployment to date.  Skip to the end if you just want to know who wins the war.  :) 

My little adventure started two Aprils ago when I was reappointed as a Major in the Marine Corps.  To be honest, I only expected to be given some mundane desk job to free up some young whipper snapper to go fight the enemy.  Instead, I was sent to communications officer school, got a new specialty, and then my parent unit, 4th Recon Battalion,  assigned me to 3d Battalion, 25th Marines.   3/25 is an infantry unit, and I never dreamed that I would be in one, especially going to war.  I've had a ball!

In January we were mobilized and sent to a month and a half of pure hell in 29 Palms, California.  It might be the Mojave Desert, but it is pretty danged cold when you're not allowed to have heaters of any kind.  Unlike most units going overseas, our battalion commander didn't give us an hour off, let alone nights or weekends, except for 36 hours right before we left and we were told our wives and family were not allowed to visit us.

Of course, I broke that rule. 

I got married to Liz over video phone while I was in California, and it was very nice to see her before leaving.  Can you imagine the families of those who were killed over here that didn't take advantage of that last chance to see their loved ones? 

The training we did was good, but we really had no idea what we were going to see or do when we got to Iraq.  I'm happy to tell everyone that the guys replacing us have been given a lot more info on what to expect before they arrived.

As soon as we got here, we jumped right into the biggest operation that had been done in our area, Operation River Blitz, followed immediately by Operation River Bridge.  Or vice versa, I can never keep them straight.  Essentially, we used the time of having two battalions on hand (us and the guys we replaced) to go all over the place and let the enemy, herein after called by me the "muj", know we were here.  My first memory of that was when I was coming back from my second trip to Camp Hit.  After our layover in Al Asad we continued on to the dam.  The convoy commander briefed us that we'd take the military-only road, which was the normal path.  However we got delayed and the outgoing battalion commander showed up and joined the convoy.  He decided, without telling anyone, that he wanted to let the muj know who owned the cities around here and went straight into Baghdadi (the town nearest Al Asad, not to be confused with Baghdad).  I was riding in a crappy high back, with pitiful armor and probably the worst death trap we had.  I decided to keep my head down below the armor since we were going on the military-only road and our biggest threat was IED's there.  Next thing I knew, one of the Marines in my vehicle got very alert and kept his rifle in his shoulder and his cheek on the stock, ready to shoot at a moment's notice.  I poked my head up and saw that we were right in the middle of muj-ville and took the River Road all the way back to the dam.  Lot's of scowling people.  These people hadn't yet been pacified, and I think only the pure surprise of us driving through town saved us.  I joined in keeping my rifle and me very alert! Later, such an stunt would be very dangerous.  I think we were very lucky.

The battalion we replaced left and we never slowed down.  Lima company spent only about 2 weeks total away from the field the entire time we've been here until recently.  Yep.  No toilets, no running water, no AC, no beds, no electricity, only MRE's to eat for nearly six months.  Whenever I think I'm roughing it, I try to remember what they've been going through.

I made a long trip down to Camp Hit to oversee installation of a tactical satellite dish, my third time there already, and I had my first experience with mortar attacks.  We had about four different attacks in one day.  I sat in the COC trying to keep situational awareness and stay out of the way at the same time.  As one of the senior officers, there'd be no excuse if I didn't know what was happening if a tragedy occurred and I was the senior man on deck.  One Marine, Cpl Lindemuth, was killed.  No one talked about it at all.  He was whisked away and no one ever even acknowleged it.  The same thing happened later when Maj Crocker was killed.  I saw his colleague a few days later and said, hey, sorry about Crocker.  The reaction was as though I had made a faux pas by mentioning it.  I don't know, it's one thing to go maudlin about death, it's another to ignore it.  I think a guy getting killed deserves at least an occasional nod of acknowlegement.  Later we were less numbed to it and were able to act a bit more normally when someone was killed.  We've had over fifty from our battalion and attachments killed, far more than any other battalion I'm aware of.   The muj are very active in the Hit-Haditha corridor.

We continued on with Operation Outer Banks.  Outer Banks was a name for raids we made on several cities in a short time span.  I made a visit to the town of Haqlaniyah for a few hours during Lima Company's raid there, I was doing an investigation and had to interview a few of their Marines.  They were not happy that the issue was being investigated and I couldn't blame them.  They hit a mine, got attacked by small arms and an RPG, and when one of the vehicles turned around to pick up the wounded it ran into a hidden ditch.  All its cargo spilled on the ground and they didn't realize it was missing until they delivered the wounded to the dam.  Once they got here they inventoried and realized that their cargo was gone, so they went back and got it.  I was named to investigate it, just routine stuff, but they thought their heroic acts were being questioned.  It was a tough job to interview them.  They didn't know me and my reassurances meant little to guys who were civilian policemen and had pre-conceived ideas of what it means when an investigation is conducted.

I'm not sure where the name "Outer Banks" came from but it involved my first extended time in the field, to the little industrial-like city of Kubaysa.  I had a blast!   My comm crew operated from a communications variant amphibious tractor.  I love riding in tracked vehicles, and this one was mine!  This was our first time using the "jump" combat operations center and my second time in an Iraqi town.  We were still figuring out the best way to do things and for a few times I ended up by happenstance being the senior guy in the COC while the commanding officer and operations officer went off to visit the local sheik and the cement factory.  We had a pretty small security section, mostly made of my comm Marines that weren't on the radio.  Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on the point of view, the muj didn't attack, they were mostly very polite and friendly to us.  I think it was the first time tanks, amtracs, and helicopters came to town.  The muj had not yet taken over too much there.  That's when I met the chicken farmer, whom I blogged about earlier.

When we got to Kubaysa, we moved into the local rec center.  There are only a few building designs out here, we seem to always move into one of two types of buildings with the same design.  This rec center was very nice and clean, and had a family living there, I suppose as caretakers.  Of course we couldn't have them staying there while we were there, so we gave them some time to pack their stuff up and leave.  We told them what roads to take and how to be careful when approaching the check points.

There's some kind of strange cultural thing here in Iraq.  Some Iraqis get totally stupid when approaching a checkpoint.  Even though we were not allowed to stop people from coming and going, we were allowed to stop cars and search them.  All they have to do is drive up slowly, follow the directions on the signs, basic hand signals, talk to interpreters, get searched and go on their way.  A pain, but simple and safe.  However, some people get stupid-attacks, as did this very nice family.  They drove as fast as they could into a checkpoint and didn't stop after numerous, very clear signals to stop.  Fearing a car bomb, the Marines were forced to throw smoke at them, flash bangs, and finally after following the prescribed escalation they shot into the car.  A woman inside was killed.  Tragic.  No one was happy about it, and the Iraqis were especially not happy.  The mosque about 200 meters away started wailing several hours later, I'm not sure if that was normal there or not.  Lots of MAM's, or military-aged-males, gathered and sent menacing looks our way.  When we sent a platoon out the gate on patrol, they thought we were coming after them, we weren't, and they all scattered.  Someone took some pot shots at us.  But generally, we had a fairly neutral city there.  Once we paid the family off, they were fine.  Life is cheap to the Iraqis.  We really hate these kinds of mistakes though, and the pains we take to avoid them cost us many of our own lives.

Next up was Haqlaniyah, still part of Operation Outer Banks.  My guys were getting pretty good at setting up the jump, I kept raising the bar for them on each operation.  This time we just had some subtle improvements that I wanted.  We drove in the trac to a building that was once a Ba'ath Party Headquarters.  It was in ruins.  It was building design number 2.  There we had a few mortar attacks, but most of the explosions were just our guys finding bomb making materials and blowing it up.  Usually they blew up the house they found it in.  At least I hope they did. 

Then came Operation Matador.  That took place out west, and we sent a reinforced company, Lima of course, to help our fellow battalion out.  They did a lot of great stuff out there, the operations out west are much more kinetic.  They drop a lot more bombs, get in bigger fire fights and have a much clearer distinction of who the bad guys are.  Here, the bad guys are prone to hide, there they tend to use more paramilitary tactics.  Which only means that they're easier to find and kill.  Good for our side. 

But they get in lucky shots too.  The guys in Matador probably wounded the guy in charge of the Al Qaeda movement here, Zarqawi.  There is no intel to back up my statement that I'm aware of (if I were briefed into it, I wouldn't be talking about it), I'm just speculating, but I think they pulled him back to the city of Haditha to get treated in that hospital.  That's the only reason I can come up with for why that hospital suddenly got fortified with machine guns, sand bags, and suicide truck bombs.  We sent a platoon down to investigate a mortar attack, and next thing we knew we had a big fight on our hands.  I was in the comm shop and the call came from the CO, "Mike, shut down outgoing comm, we've got eleven killed."  Sheesh!  My heart raced!  Fortunately, he mispoke, it was five dead, total of eleven were hurt or dead.  I spent that night helping bring in helicopters and carrying dead bodies.  The entire night is too ghastly still to go into much more detail.  Maybe someday. 

Around that same time, Lima got smacked by losing a squad of Marines when their track hit a mine and the rear hatch was jammed closed.  The vehicle caught fire with quite a few still aboard.  We had a staff sergeant killed so the regiment sent someone on short notice to replace him.  He got killed too.  So they sent another staff sergeant to replace him.  He got killed too.  Very odd.  I think we lost about fifteen people from Lima that week.

Carrying on, I got ready for our next operation, New Market.  We invaded the city of Haditha.  It turned out to be the most kinetic operation I was on.  That's when Crocker was killed.  My friend Capt Lopes, who was in my company at The Basic School twenty years ago, was shot in the hip.  A few other Marines were wounded.  Am amtrac hit a mine just 30 meters from my location, we got about a dozen mortar shells lobbed at us (none were very close).  I went out on all the little excursions to inspect the mortar impact craters.  Just an ad hoc fire team made of a few majors, a sergeant major, and a couple gunnery sergeants.  It was fun to go out and look for the impacts.  Mortars are pretty powerful, spraying shrapnel that flies through half inch steel like a hot knife through butter, but the crater they leave is very small.  We like to check out the craters to be able to learn what was shot and what direction it came from.

After Lopes got shot we decided to send the wounded to our jump COC and land a helo in the basketball court.  I organized the stretcher teams.  I was standing in the basketball court and heard some rounds cracking by.  About 20 rounds in all, at first they were missing very badly.  I looked around and saw that they had to be coming from two 2-story homes about 200 meters away across an open field, but there was no way to tell which one.  So, we didn't shoot back yet.  His last few rounds started getting within a few feet of my head and one round passed between two of my Marines so we figured we'd better stop observing and get under cover.  The muj are lousy shots but no need to give them target practice.

But what I'm really proud of is the jump COC.  Again, I raised the bar of expectations.  I brought out some new equipment and brought the internet (the classified part anyway) to the COC.  I think we're among the first to use it in combat, and definitely the first in our regiment.  We had email and chat and were surfing classified sites all over the world while in enemy territory. Suddenly the battalion staff understood what I was talking about and became true believers.  From now on, they wouldn't be happy with anything less.  Drat!  Now I've really raised the bar!

We had a few more small operations that I had no role in, but I got ready for our big one, Operation Saif, the invasion of the city of Hit.  Saif is the Arabic word for Sword, we now had to put Arabic names on our operations. Hit is the largest city in our area, and it is next in line moving north from Baghdad through Fallujah and Ramadi, and then Hit.  We expected a fight not unlike what happened in Fallujah.  We even got a company of army bradleys and tanks to join us because they wanted in on the fun too.

But here is where we were all pleasantly surprised.  Our pattern of raiding a town and then leaving within a week led them to think we'd do the same in Hit.  We had noticed that muj activity was getting briefer and briefer each city we went to.  Now in Hit we moved through it in four days without a shot being fired at us.  Then we set up in two Firm Bases and invited the mayor to meet with us.  I wish I could have seen his face when we told him we were never leaving.  It was a complete strategic victory.  It's kind of a shame that the great victories don't get as much press because they aren't as flashy, but this was one of the biggest victories since the initial invasion of Iraq was over.

And I'm really proud of my comm Marines on that operation.  I ran them ragged but they did an amazing job.  We introduced another piece of gear that has never been used by anyone, we were doing a field evaluation for the Marine Corps Systems Command.  This thing wasn't even fielded yet, it was all experimental.  We got it to run during a combat operation.  I didn't let my gunnery sergeant sleep for almost 60 hours, but we got it going.  None of the other battalions has gotten it going at all, even outside of combat, and it took another month before even the regiment got it to work.  Needless to say, the gunnery sergeant has been recommended for a medal. 

Since then the city of Hit has become relatively hospitable to us, with the people there helping us a lot to find the muj.  We also have Iraqi army units helping us a lot.

A word about Iraqi military.  When we first got here we had a "battalion" of Iraqi National Guards at Camp Hit.  This was a collection of 30 or 40 muj and village idiots run by a guy who kept giving himself promotions.  He pocketed all the pay for a full battalion and only kept a dozen around at any one time.  Mostly they spied on us, looted the Iraqis, and buggered each other.  Well, mostly they buggered each other.  There was a faction of Marines who briefed us in the US about the "general" in charge, they told us he was a fine guy and we're lucky to have him.  Of course the other faction, which turned out to be correct, wondered why this guy was still alive if he was such a good supporter.  Everyone else that supported us was systematically killed.  Personally, I can't imagine anyone meeting the creep and thinking he was any benefit to us at all.  Thankfully, we finally ran him out and shut down his "battalion." 

We had a unit of Iraqis that kept changing names.  They started as a band of mercenaries that the USMC hired.  Then someone pointed out that there were, ahem, legal problems with the Marines hiring mercenaries, so they shut them down.  Then the Iraqi government hired them and let us use them.  Amazing how that works!  They were generally okay,  They mostly looted Iraqis and buggered each other, but at least there were fewer muj among them.  And they weren't afraid to fight, even if they weren't very organized.

Now, in the invasion of Hit, we had them back again under a third name.  After the initial invasion we swapped them out for regular Iraqi army, the first we'd seen.  Much, much better.  They don't loot as much, have even few muj among them (actually almost none because they're mostly Shiites and Kurds), and even less buggering.  Buggering is common out here, especially among the likes of those that join the military.  The military isn't a profession here, like it is in our country.  Besides, the Arabic way of thinking is that women are for making babies, other men are for having fun.  I'm glad I'm not an Arab.

With the total success of Hit, we spent a lot more time in Camp Hit which had been there before the invasion about five miles north of the city.  We got the word that two sniper teams got killed, one Marine was missing.

My lord, that was our worst nightmare, a missing Marine possibly captured, who knows what would happen to him.  Operation Quick Strike, organized too quickly to get an Arabic name, was set in motion.  We had a very rare event, two battalions operating together, looking for the Marine who was quickly found dead, and looking for the missing equipment.  Sadly, we didn't level the cities of Haqlaniyah and Barwanah.  During this operation, we had another 15 killed, plus a vehicle down south near Camp Hit hit a mine and another was killed.  Twenty-one Marines and one Iraqi interpreter were killed in two days.  It made national news back home and people are still talking about it.  Most people have no idea what they're talking about, but that never stops them from talking.  One of the Marines, Sgt Brad Harper who usually worked in my tractor, was killed.  He was among those that jumped to answer the call to go rescue the missing Marine.  I miss him.  He was a great guy. 

People rarely talk about the interpreters, but this is a good time to mention how great these people are.  Some are spies, of course.  We can't do anything without assuming the muj know it in advance.  But mostly they are very patriotic Iraqis and former Iraqis.  I'll mention one in particular.  She is from Los Angeles and works for a judge or a lawyer.  She was originally from Iraq and speaks like a native Baghdadi still.  She is in her late forties or early fifties, is potato shaped, but has a heart of gold and goes out into the field with the Marines without complaining.  I asked her why she was here, and she said the money was a really big part of it, but she still wanted to help her native country out.   She was particularly effective because she is female.  Many times we would go into a house and they would interview the men in there, while she went and spoke with the women.  Because of our silly rules of not offending their culture, we generally don't allow our males to talk to their women.  The real reason they don't like us talking to their women is because generally the women have no real loyalty to their family and are happy to tell us what is happening.  She got a lot of good information for us just by chatting with "the girls."  They would happily tell us that the men in the house are muj, where they meet, where they hide bomb making materials, etc.  I haven't seen her in a while, I guess she went home or is with another unit.  I'm sure she is quite valuable because she can likely get a security clearance, and interpreters with a clearance are rare.  The last time I saw her she was sitting in Al Asad, looking unhappy and rubbing her feet.  She's one of the real heros out here.

Okay, I'm just about caught up.  Our replacements are trickling in and we only have a few weeks left.  I can't tell you what is happening next on our schedule, I just wanted to put this out while I have the time.  Sorry it's so long.

For those of you who skipped to the end, the answer is, we haven't won yet, but we're winning.  The Iraqis are sending in their army, they will soon be able to control their own future and we can leave them to it.  They will be able to root out the muj much more effectively than we can, so long as they retain the will to do it. 

I'm sure I've left out a lot of good anecdotes, but I hope this gives a good idea of what I've been up to out here.  Once I get back to the states, I'll be in North Carolina for about a week, then back to San Antonio.  From there, I'll live in Austin and stay on active duty until the end of the year or until I find a job, whichever comes first. 

Thanks for all the letters, emails, packages, and everything else.  I've had a blast out here, except for seeing so many good men hurt and killed, and feel like I've been a part of the biggest event in history in our lifetimes.  I couldn't have asked for a better way to join the fray.