Monday, April 20, 2009

Into Iraq: Night Two at Joint Base Balad

The red dust is everywhere. In your food. In your clothes. In your computer. In your eyes. In your guns. In your MRAP.

The guns are the only thing that get cleaned everyday. Everything else is just hopeless.

To the trailers for a much needed shower and nap after the day we had had.

Don't know about you, but I really don't know what non-potable water is. But that's what your water in your trailer is. Including the sink. Where has this stuff been? What happens if it gets in my mouth? Yuk.

But it felt like rain straight from heaven. Warm water may be the greatest invention ever. Washes away not only dirt but the stresses of life.

Following a nap, we proceeded to walk around the base a bit.

Here at Joint Base Balad, with 25,000 or so living here, the merchants can't stay away. Adjoining the PX is the food court, a tailor shop, a computer shop, a laundry, and then some of the most random stuff you can imagine.

Bizarre bazaars. Selling everything from "fine jewelry" to carved ivory. Cigarettes and cigars from every place in the world. Counterfeit electronics. Used shoes. And an array of the tackiest lingerie on the weirdest mannequins. Freak show.

When Zac and I saw the tailor shop, we had another Pete connection. Pete's nephew was born two weeks before Pete was killed. Pete had a set of tiny ACUs made for him by this Iraqi tailor. Those will be part of the family for generations.

You can also buy a Harley Davidson here. Inside a trailer are three guys offering great deals, so they say. Will be delivered to your house back in the States.

The favorite store on base was Ali's place. Ali sells counterfeit DVDs. I got 6 for ten bucks. I heard a soldier say he bought a Windows program that retails for $800 for $7. Ali is there everyday, manning the cash register, making friends, making deals.

At dinner time, we head for the mess hall. Another Pete moment.

The boy liked to eat. And at Camp Anaconda as it was called when he was here, the food is awesome and abundant. A cafeteria on steroids. Salad bar. Pasta bar. Grill. Daily specials. Fresh fruit as far as you can see. Steaks. Burgers. Pizza. Every non-alcoholic drink ever made. Soda. Energy drinks. Gatorade. Waters. Fruit drinks. Then, the dessert bar. And an ice cream bar. And it's all you want baby, all day long.

Pete used to write emails after he ate and you could hear him licking his lips as he typed.

The Green Team regroups at dinner and begins to share stories from the day.

The other group had a very different experience from us. Thanks primarily to the Iraqi police.

When they arrived at their school, the IP were there. They actually started stealing school supplies for themselves before the group could get them off the trucks. The police got very aggressive with the women in the group. To the point that a Lieutenant got in the IP's faces and told them to back off. There was clearly stress in the air.

There was also a sheik there named Sheik Thia. Somehow, he had heard about me and Zac. He wanted to meet us. Sheik Thia is working for progress. He is opposing the bad guys. And he has been targeted. Recently, an IED meant for him killed his oldest son and the sheik's brother. He wanted to commiserate with us. I don't know how, but we will connect. I get chills thinking about it.

We also learned that within two hours of our safe return, an IED got an MRAP on the same road we had just been on. Injuries, no casualties. But by the grace of God it could have been us.

After eating, a country duo that was with us set up an impromptu concert stage outside on the deck.

Phil Vandel and Matt Snook are two of the most talented, sweet, compassionate, honest, open, loving men on this earth. They aren't wealthy entertainers. Yet. But they donate hundreds of hours of their time performing for our military and veterans.

They have written a song called Welcome Home. It is dedicated to all who serve our country. I have heard them sing it live about 10 times. I cry everytime. It is a beautiful tribute to those that "wear the cloth of the nation".

Vandel-Snook introduced me so that I could present several hundred pounds of care packages to the servicemen there.

I could hear Pete applauding as I spoke. All I am doing is continue what he started. Pete is with me like a tuning fork. When we are on course, it is a pure sweet note in my ear. When we screw up, it is just an irritating buzz. Thanks, bud, for being with me every step.

The folks there were cautious at first. With encouragement, they began to shop thru the boxes and take what they wanted and needed. Clean socks. Hand sanitizer. Gatorade. Girl Scout Cookies. DVDs. CDs. Sunflower seeds. Clif bars. Cheetohs. Cheez-Its. Crystal Light packets. And fresh baked cookies sent from New York by a writer friend who is a gourmet and a food and travel critic. Whoever got those got the good stuff.

All were incredibly grateful. Not so much for the stuff, as for the gesture.

We heard over and over that the dreariness of Iraq and the monotony of the work wore on their souls. Seeing a fresh face, a pat on the back, talking about what's going on at home, a couple of country songs, anything to change up the routine was immensely appreciated.

We let every one we met know that all of America is not at the mall while they are at war. We let them know that thousands, millions of Americans think of them and pray for them daily.

They were glad to hear it. As this conflict is in transition headed to wind down, they wonder if anybody gives a hoot at home.

Thousands now know first hand that we do.

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