Saturday, October 30, 2004

A Black Sheep in Wolves' Clothing

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of sitting with my father at a campground near Kearney, Nebraska, and asking him “why am I so different?” I don’t recall his answer.

This feeling of being different, of not being one of the crowd, has been a common theme throughout my life in the military. I have never been of the “ooh-rah, kill, kill, blood makes the grass grow” mindset, and frankly I’m very thankful that all the bombs I dropped as a Harrier pilot were on practice targets and not other people. This, if nothing else, sets me apart from my peers (or at least my perception of my peers).

In late 2001, three things happened that fundamentally changed my self-awareness, my view of the world, and my attitude toward my career as a Marine. The first event was the terrorist attacks of September 11. I was appalled, shocked, and saddened by this carnage, but at the same time I was encouraged by the worldwide outpouring of support and sympathy: “we are all Americans now.” I had high hopes that our national response would be reasoned, careful, and proportionate. It seemed to me we had an historic opportunity to create a new paradigm of global cooperation and unity, or that we should at least try not to squander this newfound goodwill. The last few years have shown otherwise.

A month after 9/11, my daughter was born. It seemed like an act of faith to bring this fragile new life into the world, not that we had any choice by then. What kind of world were my children to grow up in? What was I doing to make it a better place for them, and for all children? It was a scary time to be a parent, but my wife and I committed ourselves to raising our children with love and joy rather than with fear and hatred.

The seminal occurrence in this trio of events was when I walked through the doors of a Unitarian Universalist sanctuary for the first time. It was like coming home - I had finally found something I didn’t even know I was searching for. By the simple step (but a leap for me) of going to church, I began a journey of self-discovery. I reawakened a spirituality and social conscience that had been lying quietly inside me as I cruised, unpondering, through the years. I didn’t know it at the time, but walking through those doors would totally change the trajectory of my life.

During this period of growth and change, I was a student at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). Although of course I spent time in class and studying, I had lots of time for my family, my congregation, and myself. It was a tremendous opportunity to devote myself to my own personal spiritual growth and my expanding role as a father, and to learn how to be part of a community of faith. I also read and learned, developing a new perspective on history, politics, and war.

As I grew more fully into awareness of myself and a different understanding of my military legacy, I began to seriously question my life and career as a Marine. What on earth drove me to go to the Naval Academy and become a Marine jet pilot? Why did I stick with it for so long? How could I reconcile my evolving values and beliefs with my military profession?

This internal questioning intensified into the spring of 2003, to the point where I seriously explored applying for Conscientious Objector (CO) status. I decided not to for several reasons. It is a long process that the military has made intentionally difficult, especially for officers. It could have also made life difficult for my family, and if I were discharged, I would have served over 15 years with nothing to show for it. Finally, even being given CO status wouldn’t keep me from being deployed in a “noncombatant” role, which in the Marine Corps only means someone whose primary role is not as a “trigger puller.” The reality of Marines in occupied Iraq, of course, is that everyone is a potential combatant.

In the end, after much deliberation, I decided that the best case outcome of applying for CO status was not worth the risk of the worst case. I found an uneasy equilibrium between the two aspects of my life - my values and my profession – and hoped for the best. I figured that given my current situation (graduate school followed by a 3-year payback tour at Headquarters Marine Corps), it was unlikely that I would be deployed, and the best thing for my family would be to avoid the uncertainties of the CO application process and outcome.

Obviously I figured wrong, and here I am, a black sheep in wolves’ clothing.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

On Its Stomach

Napoleon reportedly started the rumor that “an army marches on its stomach.” That is certainly true of the Marine Corps; food and eating are a central part of life here at Al Asad.

The chow hall experience is a unique blend of fast food, all-you-can-eat buffet, and fine dining. Every meal starts with standing in line – of course, this IS the military. But one has to decide WHICH line – the “main line” or the “snack line.” The snack line, sometimes called the “speed line,” is the fast food line, offering hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, chicken wings, picnic fare, sandwiches, and the like. It is fairly popular, both because most of the Marines here are under 21, and because the snack line is usually shorter than the main line. But there’s a secret: the main line actually feeds two serving lines, so it moves twice as fast as the “speed line!”

Upon entering the “main line” side of the chow hall, one encounters a person I call the “maitre d’ chow hall.” This person is typically a Third Country National (TCN in military parlance), someone who is neither American nor Iraqi, hired by KBR. The maitre d’ directs diners to one of the two serving lines, presumably the one that is shorter.

After a short time in the second line, the diner picks up a tray and plastic utensils, then is offered a choice of meat, rice and/or potatoes, and vegetables. The servers occasionally know what “just a little bit” means, but typically I end up with more than I want. Surprisingly, I have been able to eat vegequarian (fish and seafood but no meat; if it has feet, I don’t eat) pretty well here. There’s always tuna fish.

There is a salad bar with green salad fixings, various pasta salads, and sometimes fruit; then comes the ever-popular dessert section. There are almost always cookies, usually cake or pie, and lately ice cream (strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate) every night. Drinks consist of boxed juice and milk, canned soda, water, and coffee.

We sit and eat cafeteria style, and because we’re Americans, there are six TV’s on at all times, usually with sports or news. My roommate Chuck is typically my dining partner, and we always sit so he can see at least one screen. The presence of TV is one of the least appealing aspects of mealtime.

Upon finishing, the now sated diner takes her or his tray outside, where all refuse is dumped in trash cans. No recycling or composting here – out to the dump to be burned for our trash.

The good: crab legs, ice cream, chocolate cake.
The bad: roasted garlic mashed potatoes.
The ugly: soup, and anything from the speed line.

Reportedly, there is a Taco Bell franchise opening at the PX soon (really, I saw the sign!). Maybe that will take some of the pressure off the chow hall and the lines will be shorter.

Culture Wars, Part II

Hopefully it is obvious that my comments about Marine Corps culture are generalities, and don’t apply to EVERY single Marine I know; as in any organization, there is a wide spectrum of individuals. I am trying to compare and contrast the most obvious large-scale, cultural differences between the Marine Corps and Unitarian Universalism.

Marine Corps culture is bursting with machismo – what else do you expect when a bunch of men (and very few women) are living in close quarters, carrying guns around, and “keeping the world safe for democracy?” Not to mention flying and maintaining airplanes, shooting big guns (artillery), driving around in tanks and armored vehicles, and kicking in doors and capturing “bad guys.” No room for sissies here. Don’t even think about expressing support for John Kerry or any Democrat, questioning the wisdom of President Bush and the “war on terra,” or wondering if we’re doing the right thing here in Iraq. At least not in public – in private, you might find some surprisingly thoughtful and sensitive people.

There are also some genuinely humorous aspects of this culture, especially in Marine Aviation. Take callsigns, for example. Every aviator has a callsign, or nickname, which is typically related to an aspect of his or her physiognomy or personality, a personal blunder or embarrassment, or just a play on the person’s name. For example, the short pilot from Idaho called “Spud.” The overly anal person who researches every purchase for weeks is called “Nader.” The pilot with the large nose is known as “Beak” or “Rhino.” Someone who cannot speak intelligibly on the radio is called “Mumbles.” The pilot who runs a jet off the runway into the dirt: “Baja.” It goes on and on. Woe betide the aviator who tries to select his own callsign (usually a cool one like “Maverick” or “Shooter”) – you can be sure he’ll soon be called something like “Gelding” or “Pea.” It’s funny, but it can be mean-spirited.

I have been away from the Marine Corps culture for years now, and it was a bit of a shock initially to be thrust back into it. I have never felt totally a part of this culture, and now it is interesting to be in it but not totally of it, aware of the difference, and intentional in how I relate to it. My personal growth in the last few years has given me a humble appreciation of other people and my relationships with them, and I am amazed and heartened by how much I like and admire the Marines with whom I am serving. I think many of them are misguided and misinformed about the world, and my worldview is totally different from that of the majority. But they are so wonderfully human, so dedicated to each other and the mission, that I cannot help but love them. My ministry here is to bear witness and live my values. Perhaps I can be a little bit of oil in the machine.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


We’ve got nothing to fear but fear itself –
Not pain not failure not fatal tragedy
Not the faulty units in this mad machinery
Not the broken contacts in emotional chemistry

Lyrics by Rush, from “The Weapon – Part II of Fear.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt used words to those in the first line in his first inaugural address, during the depths of the Great Depression in 1933. But what is fear?

In the last few weeks I’ve experienced a recurring cycle of anxiety that goes like this: It starts as a vague, nameless dread. Then it builds to a constriction in the throat, a hollow feeling in the stomach, and a feeling of fatigue. It is hard to think, sit still, or concentrate. Eventually it goes away, often very abruptly, leaving a feeling of giddy relief and uncontrollable, inappropriate mirth. The root of this anxiety, this fear, is the uncertainty of facing an unknown situation.

We say we “fear” many things: death, pain, suffering, solitude, and separation from loved ones. I think we fear the unknown aspects of these situations, rather than the situations themselves. Take death, for example: everyone knows she or he will eventually die, but nobody really knows what death is. Thus there is no fear of death; there is a fear of the uncertainty of death. Many people find solace from this fear in religious assurances of eternal life with God, Jesus, or Allah, or of being reborn in a new body. Some take the view that death leads to nothing, or to endless sleep. Of course for those who REALLY want something to be afraid of, there are the eternal fires of Hell. UUs need not apply.

Any imagined situation causing fear becomes real and present when it is experienced, and then it can be dealt with. When the imagined situation becomes reality, the original fear can be overcome. Any remaining fear is of uncertainty about the future. In an extreme situation, this becomes cyclic, with each successive round of uncertainty resulting in a lower level of anxiety.
For example, when I first found out I was being sent to Iraq, I was overcome by anxiety and disbelief – this was my worst possible nightmare. By the time I left home, with the knowledge that I would be in San Diego for a while, much of the initial uncertainty was gone; I was in the “it’s just another deployment; I’ll do my time and come home” mindset. As my departure from California approached, the anxiety returned. What would Iraq be like? Would I be scared? Would there be constant danger? Upon arrival here, the reality was honestly pretty mundane, compared to what I had imagined.

The latest stage of this cycle has been anxiety about going to a FOB where there were reportedly more frequent indirect fire attacks. Was it really more dangerous? What would I do if I were wounded? What would it be like during a mortar attack? During my recent FOB visit, I got an answer to the third question sooner than I expected.

I had spent the morning with a young helicopter pilot who was showing us around, briefing us on the area, and telling us what to do in case of an indirect fire attack. “Always hit the deck – that’s the safest place. If the rounds are far away, run for a bunker. If they’re close, stay down until the last impact and then run for a bunker.” We went to lunch early because the previous day, the chow hall had been attacked at the end of the lunch hour.

We stood in line; me feeling very exposed, and then once we got our food we sat down to eat. It’s a little awkward eating with a flak jacket on, but that’s the way it goes. As I started to eat, it occurred to me to ask “so, what do we do if we start taking fire in here?” The good captain replied “same as outside – hit the deck, get your helmet on, and wait for the stampede out the back door to end. Once it clears out, we run for the bunkers.” OK, sounds reasonable.
Less than a minute later I got to practice this procedure, because BOOM BOOM, the mortar shells started landing pretty close to where we were sitting. I have a vivid memory of everyone around me diving to the deck like stringless marionettes, and then I was fumbling to get my helmet strap fastened as the rounds kept falling. There seemed to be a lull in the impacts, so we scrambled outside and dived into the crowded bunkers. I felt like laughing hysterically with the release of adrenaline and the knowledge that I was OK. At that moment I finally felt like I was in a war zone. My helmet and flak never felt so comfortable.

There were casualties, but no fatalities. One of the tents belonging to some pilots took a hit, messing up their stuff pretty well. It could have been worse. There are lots of Marines and soldiers who go through this, and more, on a daily basis.

Now that I know what a mortar attack is like, most of my anxiety is gone. I know what to expect, what to do, and how to stay as safe as possible. Having let go of the fear, I can be open to truly experiencing everything else that happens without being ruled by uncertainty and anxiety about the outcome.

There are three common themes to the resolution of my fears in these cycles of anxiety: first, the reality is never as bad as the imagined unknown. The fear is all in me! Second, in each iteration of the cycle, my level of uncertainty about the situation (and thus the amount of fear about it) declined. Finally, I did not go through any of this alone. In every case, there were at least a couple of other people going through the same thing, and we drew strength from each other.

There is nothing to fear but the fear of facing the unknown alone. Overcome uncertainty with knowledge and community, let go of the fear, and you free yourself to live your life intentionally and with joy.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Goat Rodeo

Perhaps you’ve heard of a Goat Rope? Imagine a Goat Rope of epic proportions – now you have a Goat Rodeo. That’s what it can be like traveling around these parts.

I recently made a trip out to the FOB where I’ll eventually be working. Our flight out of Al Asad was to be by helicopter, at night, as most passenger flights are (for safety reasons). We showed up at the passenger terminal at the appointed time, and we weren’t on “the list.” Oh, wait; yes, we were listed as cargo. Now that that’s straightened out, we go to “the Phoenix C-Hut” to wait for the helo. The Phoenix C-Hut is a long plywood structure with a phoenix painted over the door. After waiting until about 30 minutes after our flight was due to leave, our names are called and we load our gear on a Humvee and proceed out to the flightline. We stop, and dutifully unload our gear. “You’re not getting out here,” says the sergeant driving the Humvee, so back in goes our gear. We wait a while, and then drive out to the helicopters sitting nearby, rotors turning. Once again, we unload our gear and get out, and the driver and the crew chief have a short conversation shouted over the rotor noise. Oops, not our flight! Back in the Humvee, back to the Phoenix C-Hut. We wait some more. Finally we get back in the Humvee (our gear stayed there this time) and proceed back to the flightline, where we sit. And sit. And sit. Finally, we go to the helos (another pair) sitting there, and unload again. Another conversation with the crew chief ensues. Yay! It’s our flight! On we go, and off we go to the FOB.

Coming back from the FOB was similarly eventful. To begin with, our original flight gets cancelled due to a big dust storm at Al Asad. We have to wait until the next night. We make a stop at an intermediate airport and it turns out the helo we are on has some mechanical problems, so we get out with all our gear, stand around for 15 minutes, and get on another helo. We take off, immediately turn around, and land right where we just took off. What’s going on? Now the other helo in the flight has a blown tire and they have to fix that, which takes about 45 minutes. Back on the helo, and off we land at another part of the same airport! And sit, and sit and sit, until finally we load some cargo and off we go. In short order, we’re back here at Al Asad, two hours late, and all the goats are back in the pen. Until next time.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Culture Wars, Part I

One of the biggest changes in my life since beginning this adventure has been an abrupt reintroduction to Marine Corps culture. This is distinctly different from UU culture, which is essentially socially liberal and humanistic. At the core of UU culture is a respect and tolerance, if not acceptance, of other people and their diversity. Marine Corps culture is primarily about mission accomplishment and taking care of those who wear the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.

Although the Marine Corps pays lip service to respectful treatment of all others, it is common to hear Marines mock or belittle those who are not like “us.” Outright homophobia is common. Being religious = being Christian. Politics? Republican, of course. The norm of behavior and expressed opinion is generally white, heterosexual male, middle class, Christian, conservative, and nationalistic. Most Marines would never question the premise that we as Americans have the right to do whatever we like here in Iraq, because we are the world’s only remaining superpower. This xenophobia is expressed, perhaps unconsciously, in the derogatory term “haji” used by many to describe Iraqis or other Middle Easterners. This word comes from the same place of intolerance and dehumanization as the labels “Jap,” “Kraut,” “Gook,” and “Red” from past conflicts. A crucial step in defining the “enemy” is to make him “the other” – something less than human. These labels, combined with our willful ignorance of other cultures, contribute to this process.

Despite the intolerance for the “other,” there is a strong sense of community among Marines. There has to be, given the life-or-death consequences of unit cohesion in combat. A tremendous bond develops among people who share danger and risk on a daily basis. The strength of the Marine is the Corps, and the strength of the Corps is the Marine.

This bond, this camaraderie, this team spirit, is reflected in an obsession with sports, competition, and sports analogies. “Let’s keep our eye on the ball and accomplish the mission.” “That was a varsity move, Maverick.” “Put your game face on and get to it.” “We really hit a home run with that mission.” This obsession is no mystery – violent team sports are a form of mock combat, which has been around for centuries. Boxing evokes "single warrior combat" - and we have the Friday Night Fights Here. Combat and violent sports draw on the same energy and feed the same desires. It’s a two-way street, reflecting a violent national culture, and perhaps a violent human nature.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Mundane and the Ridiculous

It has occurred to me that very little of what I have been writing has been of the mundane, day-to-day activities I’m involved in, so I thought I would dedicate a brief post to that.
I don’t have a job, per se, because I’m just waiting around to head out to my FOB. Despite that, I’ve managed to stay busy, and can honestly say I haven’t been at all bored since I’ve been here. How do I pass the time?

First of all, there’s sleeping. This is a great activity to pass the time, and as I learned during a previous shipboard deployment, if you sleep 12 hours a day, the float’s only half as long! I have been getting at least 8 hours a night, with an afternoon nap most days.

Next, food: a popular shipboard routine is to “sleep ‘til you’re hungry and eat ‘til you’re tired.” I’m not quite there yet, but working on it. Mealtime here at Al Asad usually involves a walk; at least it does if you want to eat at the chow hall. It’s about a 15 minute walk each way, plus 5 – 10 minutes standing in line, and 30 minutes to an hour to eat (depending on the quality of the conversation), and you can see that this takes up a lot of time. I’ve only been eating lunch on days when I was already in the part of the base near the chow hall, because the walk is not very pleasant in the heat of the day.

Phone calls, computer work, and the Internet can take up hours if you work it right. I typically write my posts in my “can” on my laptop, offline (as I’m doing now), then when I get the chance, plug in to the Internet connection in the computer room (“Internet Café” as they call it) and upload the post and pictures. Add time for surfing alternative news sites, writing e-mail, and calling home, and a few more hours are gone.

Although there are many bikes around, I have not had the urge to get one. It would be a bit of hassle due to my short stay here, and the walking is fine. I have ridden the “bike to nowhere” several times (stationary exercise bike in the gym), which gives me an opportunity to read some of the magazines I brought with me, besides exercise. Speaking of bikes, the only helmets I’ve seen around are on a shelf in the PX, which doesn’t do anybody’s skull much good.

One of the highlights of my day (besides eating and sleeping) is the hour or so when I break out my guitar and learn new chords, work on songs from the book “Rise Up Singing,” and try to teach myself how to fingerpick. Guitar playing has become a spiritual practice and an emotional release, and I don’t feel like a day is complete without it.

Of course there is about an hour a day dedicated to personal hygiene – shaving, showering, and other activities. I even got a haircut today! As you can see from the picture, I won’t need another one for quite some time.

Wow, writing this post has made me tired. I think I’d better take a nap until it cools off a bit. TTFN!

Monday, October 18, 2004

Another Day at the Lion

Saturday: Today I walked around the base. A lot. I got a ride up to the flight line, and visited my old squadron. There were only 4 people there I knew – it made me feel like an old has-been. After my visit, I walked back down to the main part of the base.

As I walked around, I wondered what it must have been like as an Iraqi pilot, say about 2 or 3 years ago. I wonder if there was so much trash all around, and the buildings in such disrepair. Or was it well kept, with grass on all the areas which are just sand now? There are sprinklers in some of the sandy areas, and I’ve heard that it was all grassy at one point. Just like in Yuma, you can grow anything in sand if you water and fertilize it enough.

During my walking tour I also saw lots of “wall art” – paintings and murals that I thought were interesting – as well as an old Soviet antiaircraft gun.

I read an article today about a recent poll indicating that military personnel had a more favorable view of President Bush than the general public. This is not surprising, given that 1) most military folks are on the conservative side – Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1, 2) Fox News, the unofficial mouthpiece and war cheerleader of the RNC and the Bush Administration, is the network of choice in many military offices (including here), and 3) most people don’t pay attention to or honestly think about what’s going on, and their beliefs are shaped by what they hear from the hardliners around them and on TV (mostly conservative). Still, even given these advantages, Bush’s favorable rating was only about 70%.

The poll also indicated that service members have a rosier perception of the economy than the general public – easy to do when you have great job security with the “war on terror.” I know I’ve never really worried about the economy for personal reasons. If a poll were taken of military members who got out, the results might be different.

Monday: Today I had the opportunity for a driving tour of the “outer” parts of the base, away from the area where I’ve been able to walk around. I got to see the old dump, with MiG-25 and tracked vehicle carcasses, and the new dump, where they burn all those plastic bottles. Also on the agenda were some of the interesting hangers built into cliffsides. All and all it was a fascinating tour. The fellow giving the tour told me this base was built in the 1980’s, bombed during Desert Storm, and subjected to “deferred maintenance” in the 1990’s due to the less than stellar performance of the Iraqi Air Force in the 1991 war. In fact, this was not even an active base in last year’s war, so it was not targeted. The present dilapidation is mostly due to neglect, not war.

This is a huge base, with lots of facilities. I will be surprised if we ever totally pull out of here – I have read that the Bush administration’s goal is to have permanent bases in Iraq, and this is some prime real estate. Some “white man’s burden,” eh? In case you wondered, Al Asad means “the lion” in Arabic.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Conversations With Otis

I have been very fortunate during my time here to have made a friend with whom I have much in common: we are both twice passed over majors who were sent here involuntarily (yes, some people volunteer to come here); we have been Marine for almost exactly the same amount of time and have been promoted (and passed over) on exactly the same dates; we have many common friends and acquaintances; and we both enjoy complaining about being here and the Marine Corps in general. As someone once said, “a Marine’s not happy unless he’s complaining.”

In my personal spiritual evolution over the past few years, I have come to realize how important the sharing of personal stories is both to our understanding of ourselves and our appreciation of other people. My friend Otis and I have had many very enjoyable conversations walking to and from the chow hall or waiting for “the word” over the past few days. In telling my stories to him, I gain insight and understanding of myself, relive past experiences (both positive and negative), and see these experiences and my reactions to them in new ways. In listening to his stories, I vicariously share his experiences, wonder how I would have reacted in the same situations, and gain appreciation and understanding of who he is on a deeper level.

One thing we talked about which I found very thought-provoking and useful was his story of the Marine Corps as a “what,” not a “who.” The Corps is a machine, a clockwork device made of chains, pulleys, gears, and cogs, grinding along its way. It is designed to operate efficiently and effectively, but due to its flawed inputs (fallible humans) it is often wasteful and ineffective.

Another characteristic of the Marine Corps “machine” is its Cookie Cutter Nature. Cookie Cutter Nature operates on the rule that all Marines of the same grade, time in service, specialty, etc., are the same, and can be used interchangeably as inputs to the machine. Obviously this is not so; humans are all different, regardless of how similar their experiences and backgrounds. Ker-chunk. The cogs grind along, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Ker-chunk. The machine tries to cut out identical cookies from different batches of dough, often with predictably poor results.

Occasionally, someone will reach down into the machine and pluck another out of the cogs before disaster strikes. This is called “effective leadership.” Personal commitment and caring for fellow humans are at its core. It is rare.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Sand Storms, Water Outages, and Other Perils of War

The past two days have seen a sand storm, a water outage, and an ineffective rocket attack (just when I said we hadn’t been attacked). Life goes on here in the Wild West.
Yes, it’s wild here, and it’s definitely Marlboro country, so I’m just glad that smoking is prohibited inside and within 50 feet of buildings. Everyone walks around “packing heat,” and I wonder if there have been any incidents resulting from such a well-armed society. Maybe the gun advocates are right – if everyone had guns, there would be less gun violence. I doubt it. This is a controlled situation with well-trained people who respect their weapons. Another interesting thing is a widespread disregard of stop signs, particularly among the non-American workers. It would be a shame to be run over by the porta-john sucker, so you better look carefully before crossing the intersection!

The sand storm blew up rather quickly, first noticeable as an indistinct brown cloud in the sky, then quickly filling the air. A person could taste and smell the dust, even inside, as it got thicker. The light faded from the sky, and I was reminded of accounts I’ve read of dust storms during the Great Depression that turned day into night. It wasn’t quite that bad, and it didn’t last very long.

Speaking of stuff in the air, I’ve observed two things since being “in country” that have made me think about the environmental impacts of our presence here. Much has been made of the effects of unexploded ordnance, depleted uranium, and burning oil wells, but there are some smaller scale effects too. First of all, we go through hundreds if not thousands of plastic bottles of water every day. I bet not one of them is recycled, and many of them may be burned, releasing toxic chemicals into the air. A lot of them end up on the ground, stuck under concertina wire, or in the porta-johns. Not a pretty sight. Whatever’s left over surely goes into a landfill, to sit for thousands of years. Do plastic bottles ever decompose? Second, there are lots of diesel trucks and generators, sending up a constant stream of particulate-laden exhaust. This surely contributes to making this an unhealthy place to live. Who knows what other lovely things are in the air and soil? Maybe I should start wearing a respirator, especially during sandstorms.

Yesterday evening (soon after I took a shower, thankfully) I heard that the showers had been secured due to a water shortage/outage. I also heard that “the enemy” had actually destroyed part of the water pipeline serving the base, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. What I do know is that there are a bunch of STINKY Marines running around now, with temps in the 90’s and a whole lotta sweatin’ goin’ on. Yuck. We are pretty spoiled – one of my new friends related a story about some helicopter pilots in Vietnam who had so little water that when it rained, they would run outside naked with a bar of soap and lather up! At least all of our technological advancement has made life better in some ways, and not just made us more efficient at killing each other.

Today’s other bit of excitement was a (hardly noticeable) rocket attack, the only evidence of which I saw was a cloud of brownish smoke floating in the air. I didn’t hear any explosions so I’m not sure what really happened. I’m not too eager to see a rocket or mortar attack up close. Keep your fingers crossed.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Welcome To Al Asad, Where John Kerry is a Popular Guy (updated)

Alas, I am not staying here in the desert paradise, but I'm heading out to a FOB within the next week. In true Marine Corps fashion, it is not the one to which I had planned on going. The good news is that it should only be for two or three months. I will give more details about that in a subsequent post. I should have many of the same amenities there, the most important of which is an Internet connection!

Thanks to everyone who is visiting this site (38 hits since yesterday!) and especially those who respond. I answer each and every e-mail I get, so don't be afraid to write! Just be patient as it may take me a while due to uncontrollable circumstances.

*** Original Post 10/13 ***

“Kerry 4 Prez” - “You idiot! We’d have four more years of a Communist for president, just like Clinton” - “He’s a coward” - “No he’s a veteran just like us”

This is one example of the “dialogue” I’ve seen written in several of the porta-johns here in Iraq, but more on that later!

Compared to Camp Victory in Kuwait, Al Asad Air Base, Iraq is a veritable paradise. I am currently living in “Tin Can City,” a cluster of small trailer-like buildings called “cans,” each of which houses two people. I am in a “double wide” with three other majors. I have a lot in common in many respects with one of them, and I hope to develop a close relationship. We all get along great and it’s been fun to have some camaraderie without too much “oohrah.” None of us really wants to be here, but we’re making the best of it.

The amenities here are pretty good, considering we’re in a combat zone. There are 6 "comfort trailers" nearby with hot showers and toilets (unfortunately these are not operational), and porta-johns everywhere. There is a large chow hall that serves good food three times a day, including fairly fresh fruit and vegetables. Most of the prepared food (sodas, chips, bottled water, etc.) comes from Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, but it’s good. The chow hall is contractor run, presumably by Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, awarded many no-bid contracts), and employs people who are not Americans but not Iraquis. I am curious what nationality they are – before coming here, I had read about KBR hiring Pakistanis and Indians to work here rather than locals, which caused a big flap.

There is also an exchange (store), a movie theater, and a “local market” where Iraquis sell local stuff, presumably. I have yet to visit that. There are also 2 or 3 gyms and a swimming pool! The pool is being repaired and will supposedly be operational soon. That is good news (if I stay here) because I hate running and don’t have my bike.

It would be good to stay here, and there is a chance that I will. I may still be sent out to a Forward Operating Base (FOB); I should find out where I’m going this evening.

About those porta-johns! I have never seen political commentary in one before, but there are several I’ve visited that have “vote John Kerry” and “Bush is a misleader” type graffiti. It’s reassuring to see that not everyone here is a right-wing zealot. After seeing the signs on the soda machines in California, I wasn’t sure (see previous post, “Traveling in the Belly of the Beast”).

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Traveling in the Belly of the Beast

Like most military evolutions, flying from California to Kuwait had its share of foibles and frustrations. Overall, however, it was not bad. It started at 2 AM Saturday, with a muster at the armory to draw weapons and load our bags. This was followed by a 2 hour bus ride to March AFB in Riverside, where we waited for our 11 AM flight. Once we checked in and were manifested on the flight, we were restricted to the hangar for the next four hours. It was crowded and loud, but there was lots of food and drink graciously provided by volunteers from the area.

While waiting here my feeling of being swept along in some larger current of events intensified, along with the sense of being swallowed by this monstrous beast on its way to war. There were numerous posters depicting 9/11 and our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and belittling any questioning or protest of these actions. The soda machines in particular were covered with these things. There were no posters expressing any other viewpoints (not surprising). It was a display of single-minded determination, and an unwavering, unquestioning boosterism for our actions. I found it a bit distressing.

I have to say that the 15 hours or so of flying that took us to Kuwait were very pleasant. We flew on a United Airlines 747, and I was fortunate enough to ride in business class. The comfortable seats reclined nearly all the way, there were actual usable pillows, and the food was plentiful and tasty. If only commercial air travel were always like that. We flew from Riverside to Frankfurt, Germany (a 10 hour flight), then after an hour or so on the ground we flew to Kuwait (5 hours).

The crews on both flights were very attentive, and made much of our mission and their pride and support of what we’re doing. When we got back on the plane in Frankfurt, the second crew had decorated the cabin in red, white, and blue crepe paper, a flag, and red and blue stars with “motivational” sayings on them such as “Freedom...Made in America” and “Be safe and Good Hunting.” Wow. This hyper-patriotic display made me think about the “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower warned about, which I would call the “military-corporate complex” these days. I wonder how much the taxpayers are spending on these charter flights? Does this count toward the total cost of the war? It certainly doesn’t hurt United Airlines.

Once we arrived in Kuwait, the fun ended and the tedium began. In our first six hours on the ground, all we had accomplished was a 1.5 hour bus ride, watching a 20-minute Welcome to the War video, and two bathroom breaks. The rest of the time was spent sitting on the bus, getting off the bus, getting back on the bus, and wondering what on earth we were doing. Finally we got the “word” – we would be spending the night here at “Camp Victory” in Kuwait, and proceeding to Iraq on Monday. After much stumbling around in the dark trying to find our luggage (imagine hundreds of identical green seabags lying in the dirt and hundreds of sailors and Marines trying to find their own luggage) we got settled in our (thankfully air-conditioned) tent and were done for the day. After a shower, I finally got to bed about 11 PM Sunday night, local time.

Next stop: Al Asad Air Base, Iraq.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


Lately I have been thinking about a movie I saw years ago called “Tribes,” with Jan Michael Vincent as a flower child who is a Marine recruit. It is set at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot, and the premise is that the DI (Darren McGavin) and the flower child belong to different “tribes,” but are brought together by recruit training.

Well, I’m not exactly a flower child, and I’m definitely not a recruit, but I can identify with belonging to different tribes, or cultures. For most of my adult life, I’ve been in the Marine Corps and identified with that culture as “mine.” When asked who I was, I would say “I’m a Marine officer.” Being a Marine defined who I was in many respects. In the last few years, however, since finding UU, I have grown out of the Marine Corps culture; my identity is much richer, fuller, and diverse, and not so defined by what I do for a living. I now define myself by how I live my life – as a father, husband, and UU. My UU community (BRUU, UUCMP, and many others) is my “tribe.” I have taken to saying that the Marine Corps is just a job that puts food on the table.

But it’s really much more – I’ve been suddenly reminded that I’m still part of the Marine Corps tribe! During two years of graduate school and a year working behind a desk, it was easy to lose the cultural mindset of being a Marine 24/7. It was easy to think “I’m not going to be deployed.” Well, now I have been, and it’s taken a while to process what’s happening. Now more than ever, I have to reconcile my two tribes, these two aspects of my life, into one whole, healthy, integrated identity. In many ways this whole experience is valuable to me – rather than just plodding along, living day to day with internal conflict between whom I am and what I do, I am forced to become integrated as a person. It’s going to be an interesting journey.

Monday, October 04, 2004

San Diego

I have been in San Diego now for three full days. I spent Friday drawing gear and getting some information about where I might be going and what I might be doing. Friday night I got to pay a visit to the Balboa Naval Hospital!

Why did I go to the hospital, you ask? Well, last Monday or Tuesday I had some back pain, and on Wednesday I went to Cynthia’s chiropractor and got adjusted. Twice. It didn’t do any good. My ribs hurt too, so I was not a happy camper. This contributed to the discomfort of my flight, as it was difficult to find a comfortable position.

Thursday night (actually early Friday morning), as I got ready for bed I noticed some red bumps on my side, right where my ribs hurt. Hmmm. Coincidence? I looked at my back in the mirror, and...more red bumps! On Friday I talked to Cynthia on the phone and described my situation, and she said “you have shingles!” The doctor took one look at my back and said “she’s right!” So I got some painkiller and anti-viral medication and was on my way. If you don’t know about shingles, see the end of this post.

By this time I was in a lot of pain, and I was glad to have the Motrin. It seemed to help a bit, but I was still very uncomfortable and I had a hard time sleeping Friday night. Saturday was miserable – I felt awful, I hurt, and I was sad to be away from my family. I spent the day moping around my hotel room, feeling sorry for myself.

What a difference a day makes! On Sunday, I decided that I wasn’t going to let myself be down all day again. I started the day by reading and doing some e-mails poolside (gotta love a laptop and high-speed wireless Internet), then joined a friend (whom I met at GA) for worship at the First UU Church of San Diego. Just before entering the sanctuary, I saw another new friend from GA, so we all sat together. I really enjoyed the service – it was full of music and the sermon was terrific. The message was about bearing witness to the joy and suffering in the world – first to let go of our learned responses of ignoring the suffering of others, second to bear witness to them, and third, to heal ourselves and the world. Powerful and moving stuff.

Following the service, I drove up to Carlsbad and enjoyed visiting with a friend from Yuma, then we went for a mountain bike ride. I decided that I wasn’t going to let pain get in the way of my enjoying myself, and you know, I didn’t hurt the whole time. Next I was off to my cousin’s house nearby, where I enjoyed playing guitar with her husband and computer games with their 6 year old twins. It was great to have a “guitar fix” and a “kid fix” all in one package.
Speaking of guitars, today I picked up my new toy: a “Go Guitar,” hand made right here in SD just for me. It is small and light but sounds terrific, and will be a mental and spiritual outlet for me once I get to Iraq.

I was supposed to leave on Wednesday, but the flight was cancelled, so now it looks like Saturday. We shall see! In the meantime, I have a guitar, a borrowed mountain bike, nearby pool and beach, and perfect SoCal weather, so it’s my own fault if I don’t enjoy myself until I leave.

Shingles is a "reactivation" of the same virus that caused chicken pox when I was a kid (as far as I know, the fact that our kids just got over it is a coincidence). When someone has chicken pox, the virus (varicella herpes zoster) doesn't die or go away, it just goes dormant and hangs out on nerve roots somewhere in the body. When the person gets older and her/his immune system is weaker, the virus can be reactivated. This can also be caused by HIV, cancer, or EXTREME PSYCHOLOGICAL STRESS. Hmmm, wonder why I got it. Anyway, the reactivated virus travels down to the nerve endings and results in excruciating pain and a chicken-pox like skin rash.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

On My Way

All the preparations were done - finances and files organized, lists of things to be done made, shots received, orders in hand - off to the airport. Four hours before my flight left - plenty of time to go through my inbox and reply to all the e-mails that have been sitting there for days, weeks, months. Lots of time to think about what's coming, wonder what it will be like, and hope the time passes quickly.

The flights were long and uncomfortable, as flights tend to be, but I was able to sleep on the second one for almost 3 hours. I arrived in San Diego late at night, waited seemingly forever for the rental car shuttle, and eventually made it to bed about 2 AM.