Thursday, January 27, 2005

BALLOTS & BOMBS

The Iraqi elections will be held on the 30th, and everyone is expecting that the losers-in-waiting will do their best to disrupt them. Most normal operations around here have pretty well come to a stop as we throw everything we’ve got into capturing or killing known and suspected insurgents before the elections. My opinion is that the Iraqi’s will be so busy trying to kill each other during this period that we’ll actually enjoy a day or two of relative quiet on the base.

Apparently not everybody shares my opinion, though. The mess hall, PX, and all other shops will be closed the 29th and 30th to avoid any large gathering of troops. A pretty minor inconvenience for most folks, who like me probably have enough food left over from Christmas care packages to get them through the winter.

Which brings up one of the nice things I can say about being here – I’ve met some really nice folks at just about every turn. There is this one server that I see every night at the mess hall, an Indian fellow named Mandel. Whether that’s a first or a last name I’ve got no idea, but he has to be one of the most unfailingly pleasant people I’ve ever met. When I came through the line tonight he told me that the mess hall would be closed for two days…and then asked if I would have enough to eat. I’m really going to miss seeing him when I leave. He told me he signed up for 2 years here when he took the job, and I don’t think they get to go back home. I hope he’s making good money.

Under the heading of “you’ll laugh about this later”, Little John had a nasty run-in with the election process here in Iraq. We had an M16 in our evidence room that had been used in a suicide, and the unit it belonged to was getting ready to re-deploy back to the States and had been hounding Little John to get it released. Conscientious agent that he, LJ coordinated all the paperwork, and escorted a unit rep over to the evidence room to pick up the rifle. So far, so good, right?

Maybe you saw this coming, but since everybody and his neighbor’s cousin has his very own M16 over here, it tends to be a popular weapon of choice among the suicidal, and we have more than one M16 in the evidence room. Funny thing about Army rifles is they all look pretty much alike…black, scratched up, and tape or paint on the stock. So you can forgive the evidence custodian for signing over the wrong M16.

YOU might could forgive the evidence custodian, but not LJ, who had to make a fast and furious space-a (space available) flight on a cantankerous Blackhawk to retrieve the troublesome rifle, and replace it with the right one. That was on Monday. You know, Monday – the day the sandstorm hit and shut down all non-essential air travel? So here’s Little John stranded at a helipad 4 miles from the nearest tent, and him without his sleeping bag. Not to worry, though – here comes another chopper, but LJ can’t get on because it’s carrying ballot boxes. The next day another chopper finally shows up – and once again LJ gets bumped in favor of ballot boxes. Two cold nights later, after sleeping on a concrete floor in just his (unauthorized) black fleece and long johns, he finally manages to catch a hop back to the office, and gets in about 0130 in the morning with no one to meet him, and has to walk about two miles from the helipad to the office. To add injury to insult, LJ has never been particularly comfortable about traveling outside the wire, clinging to this foolish notion that there are people out there who might want to hurt him. (I’ve talked to him about this unhealthy xenophobia, but he persists.) Anyway, he’s starting to nod off on the chopper flight back when a loud noise nearly jolts him out of his seat. That can happen to you when you try to sleep next to a .50 caliber machine gun. He wakes up just in time to see the chopper kicking out flares, the .50 banging away, and visions of a chopper crash dancing in his head. Heck, since he got back, we can barely get him to leave the office to go eat now. As you might imagine, he is somewhat less than enthusiastic about democracy in action in Iraq.

Our replacements are becoming the stuff of legend by now…right up there with the Lost Battalion. We had reliable information from a confidential source that they had left the U.S. on the 21st…which turned out to be unreliable. Then Battalion assured us that they were in the air on the 22nd. And the 23d. And the 24th. Dang, won’t somebody please let those poor boys land somewhere?! Anyhow, we got an e-mail from one of them on the 26th, saying that they were somewhere in Kuwait with a lot of sand around them, (that really helped narrow it down), and he didn’t know the name of the camp. Said they had tried to call the Kuwait office at the number Battalion gave them, but that number had been disconnected and was no longer in service…and uh, did we have any suggestions? (Thank heavens for Morale & Welfare internet services!) We called Battalion to pass the info along…and were assured that they were in the air and would be here any minute now. Consistency, as you can see, is a valued trait at Battalion.

Anyhow, last word is that the Donner Detachment should catch a bus out of Camp Fukawe tomorrow, move out smartly to Doha and sit there until the election is safely over, and then fly in to Baghdad . We plan to welcome them with a compass and a Battalion phone list.

One final thought; it occurred to me as I was walking across the camp the other day that I’m trapped in the middle of a Country and Western song – I’m surrounded by guns, trucks, and trailers! On the other hand, there are no trains and no beer, so obviously I was mistaken.

OK, so it wasn’t a final thought. AFN radio has deteriorated seriously since I was last forced to listen to it. Now I’m pretty broad-minded in my appreciation of things musical, and I like both kinds of music – country AND western…which is unfortunate, as it’s only played between 0315 and 0316 every other Thursday. The rest of the time you have a choice of rap or listening to an Arab station.

You know, Arab music’s not all that bad once you get used to it.

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