Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dining Out

Every Wednesday my shop hops in a Humvee and drives down the road to the Air Force dining facility. Part of it is for the change of scenery, part of it is for the food. Not that Army food is bad, far from it. But the Air Force...well, they have everything a little better. For example, real plates, glasses, and even coffee mugs instead of disposable. Their DFAC actually has chandeliers. Also, a panini grill. Deep green leafies on the salad bar.

It's worth the drive.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Getting Settled

Today and yesterday I worked on "turnover" with the LT I am relieving. He has been saving and organizing things for me; if you've ever done a turnover in the military you know what a blessing a good passdown is. I will have my own desk and my own laptop which has both unclassified and secret harddrives that swap out. Very nice to be plugged in again so I can communicate regularly.

I've been on the road 2 months. I moved out of Pensacola on the 25th of June, and moved into my hooch here on the 25th of August! My "hooch" is where I live, and I have no complaints. The A/C works great. What else matters? It is one room which I share with a Navy Chief-select. She is on R&R now so I haven't met her, but my first impression is that she is very neat.

I've already gotten busy sprucing up the place. Some key items: hard plastic coat hangers, Sterlite plastic drawer, remnant rug, handmade wooden desk ($10) and chair. There are hundreds of people where I'm at, so some unit is always rotating out and trying to get rid of stuff cheap. I'm hoping to get my hands on a small fridge next.

Note: I just found out today that my APO mailing address will be cut off soon. The last date to mail anything to me at that address is the 1st of September. I do not know what my follow-on address will be yet.

That's all for now. Take care.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Greetings from Baghdad!

Hello friends and family. I am now in Baghdad, and ready to tell tales of all the recent training that I've been through. Keep in mind this training is fairly common; most Navy Individual Augmentees (IA's) go through the process described below so my situation was not unique.

Navy IA Combat Training at Fort Jackson (Camp McCrady), SC.
Main emphasis is basic marksmanship skills on the M-16. Also, gear issue, convoy and urban ops familiarization. Some basic courses in Arab culture awareness, first aid in a combat environment and land navigation. Live in a 35-person barracks, eat in a mess hall, no transportation into town, march around in formation. Here is where we get tied to our weapon(s).

Unstated purpose: Get Navy people used to Army discomfort.
Special challenge for my class of 300: no-kidding heat wave. Temperatures hit 109 and the humidity kept sweat from evaporating. Hottest temperatures recorded in Columbia in 3 years.

Camp Virginia, Kuwait. Main purpose is in-processing into theater, and for most, a "field trip" to the Udari Range (see below).

Description: Very sand, barren land that feels like the end of the world, except there is a McDonald’s. Extremely hot and dry this time of year. Trailers and other temporary buildings. Live in a 10-person tent, sleep on a cot, all toilets are outside (some variant of porta-potty, some have running water). Showers are a walk to a trailer which is (thank goodness) air-conditioned. USO is nice.

Udari Range, Kuwait. More rifle training, convoy training.
Description: Even hotter, no running water anywhere (food and bottled water is trucked in), no McDonald’s, no chow hall, just MREs. Vast, barren, emptiness in the middle of God-forsaken nowhere.Two nights sleeping on plywood floor in tent. Mixed-gender. 5 porta-potties service about 500-600 people. Best part is driving around in a humvee for several hours.
Unstated purpose: appreciation of Army discomfort.

I received some more training upon arrival in Baghdad, but I won’t go into detail. Baghdad is hot, but slightly humid and has a breeze. Trees! There are eucalyptus and palm trees and some parts are quite nice. Like the areas where Saddam used to hang out.

Some notes on this training that may be helpful if you ever plan on being a Navy Individual Augmentee (IA):

  • Keep a sense of humor.

  • Fort Jackson can get very, very hot and humid in August. There was actually a fatality due to heat exhaustion over on the Basic Training side of the base.

  • Kuwait is awful, at least what we saw of it. Hot, with blowing dirt.

  • Compared to Kuwait (Camp Virginia, Udari Range) the Victory Base Complex at Baghdad is the land of milk and honey. So, things will get better. That is, if you go there, and not somewhere bad.

  • Keep a sense of humor.

  • One of the benefits of this training is that you will appreciate everyday conveniences and truly appreciate those soldiers over here in Iraq who go without them daily, for months at a time. There are soldiers who live in their Humvees for days at a time.

  • Keep a sense of humor.

Some misc. notes, comparisons and perceptions re: Navy IA training:

Good: Clean porta-potty (smells like chemicals, floor not wet) with TP and hand sanitizer
Better: Flushing latrine closet thing, with sink, mirror
Best: The “Cadillac,” which is an air conditioned (!) trailer with flushing toilet stalls and a bank of sinks

Learning Point: There is a perfect size for each working party to achieve maximum effectiveness. A larger group just means more work as 600 seabags pass through 120 pairs of hands just so everyone is “helping.”

Best Tip: Put sock tops over boot openings to prevent overnight nestings.

Nature Discovery: Beetles grow to be quite large in this part of the world.

Another Nature Discovery: Mice like peanut butter, so don’t leave it in your pocket

Fashion Tip: Use Leatherman or Gerber tool to cinch up side adjustment on body armor, thus reducing shoulder pain by more evenly distributing 80 lbs.

Biggest Fear: Being shot in head by inept Army personnel on Udari Range

Most Surreal Moment: Pausing convoy training while 50 camels exercise their right of way.

Second Most Surreal Moment: Fresh off C-17 in Baghdad, riding bus to tents, Chris Christopherson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” plays on bus radio. It is indeed Sunday morning. In Baghdad.

Best Issued Items:

  • “Sleep System” – warm or cool, it works. All you need is a little pillow. Stuffs in sack to tiny dimensions.

  • Camelbak – 3L, used daily, probably literally saved lives

Worst Issued Item:
Entrenching Tool, otherwise known as a “shovel”. Serves only to make one of your four seabags weigh even more and you can’t get rid of it till the end of your IA. Probably only issued to make us nervous.

Best Personal Items (bought by individual):

  • Croc slide-ons – shower shoes that can handle a gravel hike
  • Belleville boots -- get a pair of boots you like early and start breaking them in. I had zero blisters. There aren’t as many rules about what you can and can’t have as you’d think.
  • Don’t forget the 55 SPF sunblock! The spray-on type by Neutrogena prevented aging, cancer, instant combustion. Also a small tube of sunblock that can hook on to your Camelbak is good.
  • Purell. Don’t leave home without it.

Best Comfort Items:

  • Zune, loaded with loving care, was photo album and jukebox on long flight and other waiting times, helped me drift to sleep.

  • Soduko book, mostly used during many lulls at Fort Jackson, hard to destroy.

  • Cool-tie. Google it. God Bless Betsy and all who make these.

  • Hand-knit wash cloth; cotton yarn feels great, and reminds me of Mom every time I use it — Camel motif apropos.

Worst Moment: Camp Virginia. Deep despair upon arriving at shower, after 24+ hours of travel and working party, undressed, in shower, but water does not work.

2nd Worst Moment: Midday, finally drifting to sleep in tent at Camp Virginia, A/C goes out. Tent is almost instantly uninhabitable.

3rd Worst Moment: Returning from Udari Range, I am actually able to smell myself.

Best Moments:

  • Passing through Bangor, Maine on the flight out to Kuwait, the Maine Greeters were there at 3:45am to make us feel welcome and appreciated

  • Stray dog at Udari range lying on top of pile of discarded ice

  • Arriving in Baghdad, someone was there to meet us, with my name on a list

  • Finally getting to talk to loved ones on the phone and “downloading” all my adventures.

How Previous Experience Prepared Me for Navy IA Training:

  1. SERE: Always I’m too hot or too cold; sleeping on ground with 50 smelly guys, being absolutely filthy

  2. 9.5-month deployment on USS Lincoln: Dealing with, shall we say, “personalities”

  3. Quantico, Va. (4 weeks of Marine Leadership Training): Having a formation every hour or so, for which you need to be 20 minutes early, parasitic M-16 on person 24/7, cranky drill sergeants, being absolutely filthy

  4. Hurricane Ivan: Everything you own is dirty, transient living, immeasurable joy at the sight of electricity and running water, being absolutely filthy

Well, that’s it for now. Expect future posts to be shorter, more regular, and probably less dramatic.

Remember, this is just Navy IA Training and is a small taste of what others endure daily. Keep the Army and Marines in your prayers. Most of us will never know what these troops go through, nor the good they do, nor their everyday heroism. Also, while my stint here is only 9-10 months, most of the soldiers will be here for at least 15 months.