Monday, April 20, 2009

Into Iraq: Visiting Balad

The Green Team was divided into two groups to visit two different schools.

Zac and I were teamed with a former Miss America, the Crocs ambassador of goodwill, Big Dice, The Fish, and a couple of DFW area businessmen who give their hearts and their money to support the our military veterans.

When Zac and I first saw Big Dice at the DFW airport, we started trying to guess who he was. Had to be an athlete because he was a big man and built like a brick shithouse. Dressed cool in a blazer, jeans and ball cap, maybe an athlete turned actor. Turns out he is just a big man with a bigger heart. He does humanitarian missions all over the world. He was leaving for a trip to Bangkok the day after we got home from Iraq.

The Fish is Gary Sinise's best friend. Perhaps the funniest man I have ever been around. Zac is still laughing at Fish stories. One favorite is on film. We asked Fish to take a picture of us. Fish took the picture allright. Except he held the camera backwards and we have a lovely closeup of his face.

He told us he saw the day that Gary became an actor. They were in high school together and Gary had decided not to graduate. A teacher approached him and said she had an idea as to how to get him some needed credits. She invited him to join a theater class. He did. He got the lead. The rest is history still being made.

We were going out with a different platoon than the one that brought us in. Another briefing. Travel route. Rollover brief. Rollover into water brief. IED brief. Small arms fire brief. Battle rattle check. Load up and roll.

Over the radio speaker, we can hear the chatter between the soldiers in our truck. On the way up from Balad, the Lieutenant in charge had told his guys to behave on the radio since they had guests. No such warning on this short ride, which provided much needed humor.

These guys hammer each other as only brothers can do. Laugh at mistakes. Laugh about missing their girlfriends. Laugh at Iraqis. Poke fun at everyone in sight. This day's primary target was a "fuckin' female captain who they just saw ask an nco to show her how to load her gun". Oh, was she roasted and toasted to the delight of all.

Sitting across from me in the back of the truck was the platoon's interpreter. An Iraqi. A contractor. In full US Army uniform and battle rattle. I have to guess this may be one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. The bad guys don't want Iraqis to help our Army. I don't know his motivations, but he was a member of this unit. He was one of the brothers.

In a few minutes, we are in town. It looks like a Mexican border town. Cinder block and stucco buildings. Lots of dingy auto repair shops. A few small markets. Dirty. Bullet holes everywhere.

Our MRAPs roll into a gravel area and come to a halt. We are at the school.
We civilians are told to stay in the truck. The troops exit, form a security perimeter around us, and shoo away all the locals.

They motion for us to exit and we tumble out of the trucks. Literally. With 60 poounds of body armor, you are a bit top heavy. No face plants, but it wasn't pretty.

We enter the gate into the courtyard of the school. A one story hourshoe shapped cinder block and stucco building with a dirt courtyard. No electricity. No running water.

This is an all girl school. In Muslim countries, if girls are educated, they are segregated from the boys.

We are first met by a large group of 5 to 6 year olds. We must have looked like Martians to them. They backed away. Their beautiful little eyes were full of wonder.

Zac found a rubber ball and began bouncing it to the girls. Does this kid know how to break ice or what. Within seconds, we were playing with the kids and the love fest began.

The mayor of Balad, the head of education, several other assistants, and the mayor's bodyguards met us in the courtyard. Handshakes, photos, thank yous. It all felt genuine. It was a bit surreal to look at his security men carrying their AK47s while we noticed our Army guys had taken up security posts around the school. Our sniper was on the roof.

The mayor and the head of the school gave the okay and we began to distribute the goodies. Candy. School supplies. Crocs. Very orderly. The teachers would firmly call the girls to order when they got a little too excited. There were smiles everywhere.

A local tv station showed up. They took video and, surprise, they wanted to interview Miss America.

I went to classrooms to hand out candy. The rooms are dark. I didn't see blackboards or books. The girls were dressed in that third world mix of jeans, track suits, odd t-shirts and other world hand me downs. They all wore shoes, leggings and had a white scarf over their hair and a blue wrap worn like a sari. Maybe the school uniform.

We were trained not to make eye contact with the adult Iraqi women. So we didn't. However, there is obviously no issue with Iraqi men making contact with American women. The couple of women in our group were blonde and attractive and were viewed from head to toe by every Iraqi.

A local sheik showed up. Don't know which tribe or what he represented, but he wanted his photo opp. And cigarettes. He bummed them off everyone of us he could. And he chatted up the ladies.

When the supplies had all been handed out, we began saying our goodbyes. We noticed a couple of blue uniform Iraqi police had showed up. They slunk around in the background. They were creepy as hell.

The mayor asked us to stay in touch and asked if we could provide more help. Books. Blackboards. Anything to support the schools. I think he was genuine. I hope we can. Only sustained connections will make a real difference. Drive by mission work doesn't have lasting impact.

We loaded back up and returned to Paliwoda. It was lunch time.

Behind many more blast barriers, we entered a fine mess hall. That's when it hit me. This was Easter Sunday. The place was decorated with bunnies, colored eggs, special desserts, the works. We had ham, turkey and dressing and all the trimmings. Our boys and girls eat well over there. (Apparently, they should. Halliburton has the contract to feed them. The rumor amongst soldiers is it costs about $20 a plate.)

About a thousand soldiers live here. They like it. There is not as much brass around as at bigger bases. They have it to themselves. We passed an intense co-ed volleyball game boing on between the blast barriers. Kids having fun. With their guns nearby.

We loaded again and headed back to Joint Base Balad. The longest 30 minutes of our lives. We were now aware that we were in very dangerous territory. Everything had gone so well. Zac and I looked at each other. This was a morning just like Pete had experienced many times. And then, one last time.

Rolling along with your unit of 17 soldiers and an interpreter headed for home. Then a blast and the world shatters. It was hard to breathe. We winced at every bump in the road. Oh, God, please. If it has to happen, take me. Leave Zac and these other kids. I've lived. I've had more blessings than one person should.

Nothing happened.

We rolled onto Joint Base Balad. We thank the guys for taking such good care of us.

I asked them what the rest of their day would be like. The sergeant asked if I remembered some orchards we had passed. He said they would wait until dark and then head in there. It is a favorite place for bad guys to hide caches of weapons.

He said it like he was going to the Xerox machine.

Can you imagine knowing you are going out into the Iraqi night, into an orchard known by bad guys, knowing you might find weapons or an ambush? Oh, and maybe an IED on the road to boot?

I hugged him and told him to be safe.

"We always try, sir."

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