Changing of the Guard
Wistful glances eye the freedom birds taking a break to
refuel and reload. Perhaps its understatement to say it’s with mixed
emotion we send off soldiers of the 101st Airborne. You long to go with
them. As circa 2001 saw written, to return to a life something akin to
“normalcy.” At the same time you don’t want to leave
because the job is not done and your time isn’t up.
For many of the soldiers in the 101st – this is their second tour.
A year’s a long time – and they look worn. Needless to say
they’ll return home to Ft. Campbell for a much deserved respite
and then begin another training cycle that will probably culminate with
another year long deployment. It’s a volunteer Army. Bastogne goes
the battle cry.
I’m proud to have the Screaming Eagle on my right shoulder –
the combat patch signifying deployment to a combat zone with the 101st.
For us it’s a matter of adjustment: it’s a secret no longer,
the 25th Infantry out of Hawaii owns the flagpole. Imagine one day just
swapping out the people you work with newcomers; the learning curve is
steep. The fact that the Kirkuk PRT has been here for five months is of
tremendous value – especially given that civil affairs is the main
Grapes of wrath
Back in the cool shade of June, I used to like to say that the effective
difference between 110 and 115 was nil. By contrast, August discovered
the difference between 110 and 120 is quite distinguishable. The temperatures
steadied – for weeks – at a 50 degrees Celsius or 122 Fahrenheit
and dipping perhaps into the 90s at night. September has brought with
it those cool serene mornings again, starting at 27 degrees Celsius and
only rising to the low 90s.
The dryness of August also brought with it the sand storms more common
in the southern part of the country. Kirkuk ’s vegetation sheltered
much of the region from the majority of that misery, but the heat of the
dog days greedily absorbed moisture to the extent that if it were possible
to have a negative percentile of humidity, it would surely register here.
More common than all out storms however, are the dust devils. Tornado-like
wind gusts randomly sweep dust clouds in to a whirling dervishes that
seem to wander aimlessly if not recklessly. If you are caught in the middle,
visibility drops to zero and you’re lucky to see your hand in front
of your face. Even Steinbeck would have been impressed.
Doubling down on Arabic
Iraqi agriculture expert, Dr. Sam, a 70-year-old Iraqi expatriate with
a New Zealand passport, has pressed me to refocus on learning Arabic.
Typically, we commit to two or three nights a week for one hour –
which is just shy of tipping the balance of diminishing returns at the
end of long day. Infinitely patient, Sami is a natural teacher and brought
with him a series of grade-school textbooks complete with pictures.
Sometimes late at night, I’ll climb a nearby manmade
hill that used to serve as lookout post. Over 100 feet high, amid flat
terrain, the mound of dirt provides a commanding view of the surrounding
area. In one direction, a single tower in the distance, tall and narrow
burns a flame that can be twice the length of the structure itself. The
flame juts straight up and on a moonless night appears to dance on the
horizon un-tethered to the earth.
In another direction, three short but fat towers of the Northern Oil Company,
burn off impurities with a less brilliant glow. The squat fires seem to
grow wide rather than high, and in this case, give off the appearance
of three giant beachside campfires. In still a third direction, the lights
of the city glow so benignly that it could easily pass for any American
city in the Western desert.
The home front
While I try to avoid political commentary, it’s important to note
that the debate that seems to be raging at home does not go unnoticed
by the troops in theatre and I’ll leave you with this: Though I
personally desire very much to go home – and perhaps that’s
been stirred by watching those who just embarked on those transport plane
bound for freedom – I feel deep down inside we need to see this
thing through. Agree or disagree with the reasons for invading, the fact
that we did, changed the dynamics.