Friday, February 27, 2009

SPC Erik Fardette getting Navy personnel ready for the Army-Navy game shoutout.

SSG Peter Ford getting some shots of one of the speakers at the detainee release ceremony.

The crossed swords. Notice the broken hand at the base of the sword on the right.

The Al-Rasheed Hotel, where I lived when I was here in 2003.

SPC Steph Logue hard at work at the detainee release ceremony.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


...I made it outside the wire yesterday (Sunday, February 22).

I've been wanting to get outside the wire since I arrived. After all, I didn't spend 5 months in training to sit at my desk day after day, typing, reading e-mails, and arranging interviews. I want action! I want adventure! And now I want some Motrin. That "battle rattle" gets heavy after awhile!

The event was the release of 57 Iraqi detainees, one of many such upcoming ceremonies. I was originally supposed to be in a helicopter over the site, taking photos from above, but we got "weathered" out by fog. (Okay, sand fog, but that's another post.) So, I joined the group on the ground. I convoyed out with Soldiers from Task Force Dagger, otherwise known as 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. We moved out in 3 very large, armored vehicles. Think up-armored school buses. The most difficult part was just getting into the seat. There is plenty of room, but when you're wearing a helmet that cuts off your peripheral vision, a very bulky vest of body armor, carrying a camera, AND trying to put on a 5-point seatbelt it gets a little crazy.

Our first stop was the Green Zone (or International Zone) to pick up the Iraqi journalists that our Media Engagement Team had invited. When I was here in Baghdad in 2003 it was right after the initial combat and things were still quite messy. People were sleeping in vehicles, in hallways, in bathrooms...where ever you could find a spot to lay down your head. I got out and about in the Green Zone then, especially to the famous crossed've seen the photos...the huge pair of hands holding up crossed swords over the wide avenue that Iraqi soldiers once marched down in front of Saddam. There are two sets of them, one at each end.

When I saw the swords from the window of my school bus, I knew exactly where we were and I had an eerie sense of homecoming. It was an odd feeling. Off in the distance I could see the Al Rasheed hotel, where we stayed while we were establing the Press Information Center at the convention center, which I could barely see over the palm trees. Nothing at the site had really changed exept that one of the cast iron "hands" had broken off and was lying in a heap at the base of the sword.

We loaded our journalists and proceeded to the site of the detainee release. There were a lot of people there, including Coalition Soldiers and Iraqi family members awaiting their family member. I was able to witness several family reunions and it was very touching to see these men greeting their wives, children, parents, and friends. The tribal culture in Iraq is very family oriented and their relationships with each other run very deep. There were lots of tears, shouts of joy, hugging, and kissing.

There were also lots of Iraqi media present! Journalists with all types of video and still cameras were milling about, capturing the family reunions here and there. During the speeches they all lined up in a row, basically blocking the view of the entire audience. I wish that I had access to Iraqi media to see what was eventually aired or printed.

We returned our journalists to the Green Zone and then proceeded back to Camp Liberty. Overall, a successful mission for me on many levels...I got out of the office on a nice Sunday afternoon and I got some nice shots of our journalists hard at work.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Settling In

The process of settling in has begun and it's been a relatively painless process. My 1SG and I share an office and we have spent the past few days rearranging it to the way we do business and it's a good thing that he and I think a lot alike. We have cleared out drawers, re-arranged bookshelves, put out our binders, wrote up our own calendars. The building is becoming "ours". We have explored both Camp Liberty and Victory and found all the staff sections and departments that we need to be a functioning part of this operation. We've taken the necessary classes to become FOOs (something about money) and contracting officers. We've made countless phone calls to find out how and when and where things are done. We are learning the ins and outs and the rules and regulations (like the fact that I cannot bring my Starbucks coffee mug into the dining facility).

We took video and photos of a promotion ceremony yesterday...a Louisiana National Guard Colonel was promoted to Brigadier General. The ceremony was in the VTC (video teleconference) room with a live connection back to his headquarters so his stateside chain of command and his family could see the ceremony. Ahhhh, technology! The photos are SPC Ashley Anderson and SGT Lisa Heise working hard over at Division Headquarters. Right now our journalists are working around Camp Liberty but next week we will start sending them out into the trenches with the Soldiers out in the streets. They'll be gone for days at the time...sort of a scary thought because I want them to stay here where I can keep them safe from all the bad things outside the wire. But then I remember that there are many, many good things outside the wire and it's our job to get those good things back to our stateside audience. We didn't spend 4 brutal months in various levels of training for a theater of operations only to sit on the FOB and watch others go out.
It's been an interesting adaptation to life on Liberty. The simple things I miss! Like flush toilets... :) Most of our latrines are port-a-johns that thankfully are cleaned several times a day. There are some real bathrooms dispersed throughout the camp and I'm learning to plan my visits to these treasured rooms at specific times so I can use them. And rocks. Lots of rocks to walk on. They are everywhere to keep the dust down but they are brutal on shower shoes and combat boots. I can already feel the soles of my brand-new combat boots breaking down from walking on these rocks. I hear the average life span of even a good pair of boots is about two months so I know I'll be heading to the PX soon to buy another pair. Shower shoes will probably last about a week!
The best part of life at Liberty is my CHU or containerized housing unit. Since I'm a major I get my own 12' X 12' CHU with a comfy twin bed, a locker, and a table. And I have quiet neighbors! My 1SG is next door and he's quieter than a church mouse. My other neighbor goes into work in the late afternoon. He also works here in the Media Operations Center so we worked out a "noise" schedule when I moved in. The peace and quiet I have at night in my CHU is one of the small treasures I have here at Liberty.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Days Follow Nights, Nights Follow Days

It's already started...the mingling of the days, the lack of awareness of what day or date it is. It happens in a deployment. Soldiers learn very quickly to wear watches with the date on them so they can absent-mindedly look down and go "oh yeah, it's Sunday". In a civilian job you usually have a 5-day work schedule and 2 days off...most people work Monday through Friday and then Saturday and Sunday are the weekend. There is time for shopping, doing chores around the house, sleeping late, and goofing off. Sunday is a day of worship and rest...the mail stops and people are lazy.
Not here. Sunday is just another day here in beautiful downtown Camp Liberty, Iraq. We get a little break on the reporting time (0930 since the DFAC doesn't even open until 0730) but otherwise it's business as usual. A little quieter, but there are still reports to file, meetings to catch, e-mails to open. We even get mail! Our Post Office here is open 7 days a week. Soldiers are working hard on their stories and I'm getting ready to go to the weekly PAO synchronization meeting and then dinner.
We're settling in slowly but surely, working through our "right seat ride" and taking over responsibilities. We've moved into our trailer, or CHUs, and I spent last night finally unpacking the personal bag that I packed in the middle of December (a lifetime ago!). It was nice to finally have different socks and underthings to wear rather than the 6 that I have been using through the mob process and washing. I also found my stash of Bath and Body Works body wash and cream...Enchanted Orchid! My new favorite. Won't last long, though, so I'll have to order some over the Internet. But it was nice to sleep in a real bed last night after a week and a half on a cot. Sleeping on the cot isn't so bad but we sleep in our sleeping bags and it's hard to roll over while in a sleeping bag...the zipper doesn't move with me and it's freaky trying to unzip the stupid bag for that 2 a.m. walk to the latrine. My bed is super comfy, not too soft, not too hard, and I brought my own sheets and blanket. We got issued sheets and a twin-sized comforter, all of which are stored away for when it's time to turn them in. I'm so glad that I authorized us to bring a personal bag..!
I get out of the office every now and then but not off Liberty yet. A few days ago we had to go to Camp Victory to the Aw Faw Palace to get our entrance badges for Division main here (their machine was down). We stopped in to see our sister unit, the 343rd MPAD, and say hello. They were basically one month ahead of us in the mobilization process although we did train with them at RTC back in October-November.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hotel California

Just like the song says..."you can check out any time you like but you can never leave".
Life in Baghdad is slowly (and I mean very slowly) falling into place. Patience has never really been a virtue of mine but I am learning the fine art of waiting...for someone else to move on.
TOA, or Transfer of Authority, is never an easy time for the incoming or outgoing unit. They have boxes of equipment and gear to move out, we have boxes of equipment and gear to move in. They have missions and tasks to wrap up and we have missions and tasks to begin. They are moving out of their trailers and into transient tents and we are moving out of transient tents into our trailers. With all those moving parts there are the inevitable collisions, despite the (figurately) posting of warning signs here and there.
It helps that overall our mission is slow right now. It helps that 1st Cavalry Division (1st Cav) is new and still figuring out their own battle space and battle rhthym. It will take awhile for all of our parts to fall into place, for all of us to figure out where we are supposed too be, and when, and in what uniform.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

That Duffel Bag Drag...

...everyone in the Army knows what I'm talking about. It begins inocuously enough...just put your bags in the truck, load your equipment and head to the terminal for that flight overseas. Then you have to load the plane. And then unload the plane. Then load the bus then unload the bus. Then load the truck and then unload the truck. Then load the truck then unload the truck onto the pallet. Then load the pallet on the plane. Then unload the pallet off of the plane onto the bus. Then load the truck then unload the truck at your new office. Overall, not a bad deal if you're just dealing with 3 - 4 bags per Soldier. But we moved with all of our mission essential equipment (and some not so mission essential)...about 4,000 pounds of gear.
But here is the end result: we are moving into our building at Camp Liberty in Iraq! It's finally happening. We departed the barracks at Ft. Dix in the snow and waited in the terminal for our midnight departure to the Middle East. We played cards, made last-minute phone calls, and read books. Altogether there were around 300 people on the flight...along with the aforementioned gear. How that plane got off the ground is beyond me. But it we stopped in Germany to refuel both the plane and the Soldiers. We landed in Kuwait at oh-dark-early and rode a bus to the desert oasis of Camp Buehring to...wait. They weren't expecting us there so it was a bit of a struggle to find a place not only for us but all of our gear. We spent a few days rolling around in our tents, attending one class and firing off our weapons into the desert to ensure that they worked properly.
Things I'd forgotten since I was last here:
1. How beautiful the sunrise is over the desert.
2. How funky camels are. Amazing creatures...but funky.
3. Clean is relevant. Why shower or wash your uniform when the dirt will just magically reappear within a few minutes anyways?
4. Military dining facilities overseas serve more food than can possibly be eaten. And it's good.
5. Starbucks and Burger King are EVERYWHERE. Even the middle of the desert in Kuwait.
Finally we rolled onto the C17 that brought us to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport). The temperature was a balmy mid-70s and the day was hazy...a far cry from the snowstorm that we flew out of. The unit we are replacing greeted us warmly and got us settled into our transient tent. The unit is in one large tent...females on one side, males on the other, a barricade of cots in the middle. This is until Saturday when the unit we are replacing moves into transient tents and we take over their trailers. I will have a room to myself! Rank definitely has it's priviledges.
It seems so far away, but the countdown to our departure has begun. It seems weird to be planning our departure before we've even fully settled in, but we are. Our time here will go by quickly and before we know it...we'll be greeting our replacements at BIAP and settling them into their transient tents. It's the circle of life for deployments everwhere...did it in Bosnia, Kosovo, Guantanamo Bay and my first tour of the desert.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

All My Bags Are Packed...

...and ready to go...

It's very near time to head out and finally start doing what we've been training to do for what seems like eons.  For us, it is now a test of patience, a time of "hurry up and wait"...that Army staple that still makes me crazy, 19 years after I first enlisted.
Speaking of 19 years in (and my 5th deployment), I finally have my very own, specially-fitted protective (gas) mask.  It's an M45, while the rest of the Army gets M40 masks.  My face is too long and thin to fit into an M40...the medium smashes into my cheekbones and I can't get a seal while the small sits on top of my cheekbones and I can't breathe (which, apparently, is bad).  Either way, I walked away from the M40 fitting with bruises.  As I tried on my very own, brand-new M45 mask I was thrilled to think that no other Soldier had snorted in this particular mask.  Ever.  Seriously, there were only Annmarie snorts in there and it smelled like the interior of a new car.  The other 19 Soldiers in my unit got brand-new, unfired, M4 rifles and they were thrilled.  I have a new mask..!  
It's the little things in the Army life that keeps us going.  And happy.