Sunday, November 28, 2004

Plaster and Gold

Every story deserves a happy ending. Unfortunately that's not always the case. However, no matter how dark circumstances may seem, there is always a small sliver of hope that manages to shine through. So it is with Rami and Fami.

Despite their personal situation, these little boys continue to touch my heart. A couple of days after Thanksgiving, they came into the chapel to make themselves useful. They decided that the shelves of books and comfort items for the soldiers needed to be organized a bit. So they began working, quickly and happily. I saw what they were up to so I strolled over to them to thank them and supervise a little. Since they had the situation under control, I didn't stay long. They made small talk as they worked. Before leaving them to their work, I presented both of them with a one dollar bill, the equivalent of about a days pay for your average Iraqi (I'm told). The boys didn't want to accept payment from me but I insisted and they smiled and continued to work. The next day, Rami came into my office and motioned for me to come look at something. He took me out to the lobby area, near the shelves they had organized the previous day, and pointed to a small plaster sculpture. It is a small cheesy souvenir type trinket with camels and palm trees. It says "Iraq" on it and has a big chip out of the front. He said in his broken English, "Me go to supermarket buy you." He had taken the dollar I gave him and purchased a gift for me. There is really not much I could say to that without breaking down entirely. It's not just plaster and paint. It's gold!

Yesterday, Rami returned to my office to chat. His hair was combed, his face washed, and he was wearing a new set of clothes. He smiled and told me that he was able to go home and see his mother because the police, with the help of the Americans, had run the Anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF) out of his neighborhood. He had delivered his savings to her and spent the night in his own house.

So hope continues to carve it's way into the Iraqi landscape.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Thanksgiving for a Price

Yesterday was Thanksgiving and I was once again away from my family. In all reality, I was a bit peaved by it but, of course, I had to put on my best game face because what good is a Chaplain with a bad attitude? So I made the best of it. However, I wasn't actually all that thankful. Why should I be. I'm away from home for the second year running, sleep is a fleeting activity, dry turkey in a chow hall full of dusty people in the middle of a war torn desert is a far cry from Tina's home made stuffing and mashed potatoes. Gee, thanks! I have ample reason to complain and put aside any vestiges of thankfulness. Don't I?

Well, this being a holiday and me being a chaplain provided all the ingredients necessary for your average compulsory holiday worship service. There are currently two other chaplains here with me, Ron Webb and Jeff Jay. So the three of us put our heads together and came up with a simple game plan, Jeff would lead in a couple of songs, Ron would present a meditation or sermonette relating to thanksgiving (he did an excellent job) and I would polish off the evening with communion. Fellowship afterward would include pie and coffee and some good old conversation. So, we set out early in the day to implement the aforementioned worship plan.

At this point in the story I'd like to introduce the reader to Rami and Fami. They are brothers from the local community. Rami is eleven years old and Fami is about nine. As we were preparing for the evenings festivities of forced fun I had a nice little conversation with Rami. He wanted to help me fold bulletins, so I showed him what to do and as we folded, we chatted. His English is broken but understandable and when he encounters a word or concept he doesn't know the word for he uses hand gestures rather effectively. I had heard rumors about his situation but they were unconfirmed so I decided to confirm them. "Where are your mom and dad?" I asked. In his own broken way he launched into his story.

Rami and Fami come from a family with 5 boys and one girl. At some point in the past his father left, never to return. He may have simply abandon them or he may have been killed by the Hussein regime. Either way it was very clear that he would not be coming back. So their mother was left to raise them. Of course, Rami and Fami being the oldest sought work to help their mother.

"Where is your mom now?" I asked

"At home" came the very simple reply.

"Do you go home at night." I queried, half knowing the answer.

Rami explained that he sends all his earnings home to his mother. He used to live with his mother and siblings, but there were bad Iraqis that would shoot all the time and explode things and he couldn't sleep very well. So now he stays on compound somewhere.

"How do you sleep now?"

Holding up his fingers in an "OK" fashion, he said, "Very good!" Then he added. "If I go home the Iraqis..." At this point he gestured by making a cutting noise and drawing his little hand across his neck. So Rami, 11, and Fami, 9, have a price on their heads for working with the Americans. When I was nine the price on my head was self imposed and valued at the price of one large orange that I owed my older brother.

Later in the evening, as I celebrated the Lord's Supper, I was thankful. For my freedom, for the chance to share that freedom with others who have none, for my family, for my job, and especially for my salvation.

It's amazing the perspective one can gain by having a conversation with an eleven year old.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Becoming a Veteran

Yesterday was certainly an exciting day, for a number of reasons. First, it was Veterans Day. That's always a good day to sit back and reflect. However, there was very little time for reflection this year.

It all started rather early with another loud explosion. Obviously it wasn't really close, but it was big enough to wake me up. So my day started with a mortar and went on from there. Throughout the day we experienced sporadic mortar and rocket attacks that, once again, were less than intimidating due to their complete lack of accuracy and apparent randomness. However, once the sun went down, the fun really began. I was sitting in my office writing email or studying or reading, with SGT Crawford dutifully at my side, trying to while away the time. A soldier came in and said, "Hey you guys need to see this!" We grabbed our Night Vision Goggles (NODs) and ran outside. In the direction of the front gate to the base here could be seen tracer rounds shooting into the sky and small explosions could be heard. After watching for a while, and being confident our soldiers had things under as much control as can be had in such circumstances, we headed back into the chapel. Soon someone else ran in and said, "AIF is inside the wire!" AIF are the bad guys, terrorists, them what you will, they can taste American blood. So SGT Crawford and I grabbed our ballistic vests and helmets and he grabbed his weapon and we proceeded to the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) to find out what was going on. As we stood in the TOC listening to the intel reports coming in and the Battle Captains assessment of the situation, one of our senior NCO's came running in, almost ashen and said, they're attacking our compound. Every guy grabbed his weapon and headed outside. Someone or something had tripped a trip flare on our perimeter, about 100 meters from the TOC and the guard towers had opened fire on it. Tracers continued to fly for the next several minutes, only meters from my position. I told SGT Crawford to grab the soldiers not actively engaged in the fight and set up a defense around the TOC. He did that perfectly. I continued to monitor the situation from inside the TOC so as to be able to respond quickly should someone need a chaplain. The fight at the fenceline soon died down but everyone remained on edge and ready to cap the first guy who didn't know the password. Throughout all this the fight at the front gate continued and intensified. Grenades and .50 cal bursts could be heard. At one point someone out front cut loose with a Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher. That is one bad weapon and they certainly put some serious hurt on haji.

A couple of hours later, around midnight Zulu, I felt it sufficiently safe for SGT Crawford and I to make our way to the air field, where several of our soldiers were manning fighting positions, prepared to defend the airfield. We walked the 200 meters or so and began making our way from one firing position to another, checking up on the morale of the guys and saying a quick prayer. As we stood and talked with each team inside their bunker or next to their vehicle we watched with interest the goings on at the front gate, approximately half a mile away. Gunfire and explosions continued. Overhead we could hear the drone of what turned out to be an AC-130 Spectre Gunship circling over head watching the fight and waiting for it's opportunity to strike. The Spectre is the bad boy of airborne armament. Armed with two 30mm cannons and a 105mm Howitzer it strikes fear into any enemy that knows it's in the area. Haji didn't know! As we watched it circle suddenly it "lazed" something on the ground. That means it pointed an onboard laser at a potential target. The beauty of the laser is that it is invisible to the naked eye. However, to those of us with NODs it shows up clearly as a bright red line from the plane to the ground. That lasted only a second or so before we heard 3 explosions in rapid succession as the rounds from the Spectre's Howitzer hit their intended target with ferocious accuracy. It was terrible and beautiful. Haji continued to fight but even if he didn't know it, his efforts had been crushed. Then, as if to add insult to injury, it appeared. We didn't even hear it coming because it was flying only about 200 feet off the ground and going very fast. It was either an F-15 or F-16 and it flew toward the fight and then pulled up and punched it's afterburners. Beautiful. We didn't hear anything and assumed that it had abandoned it's run for some reason. Later we learned it had struck what it wanted and done so with impunity as yet another of haji's "secure" locations was pounded into the realm of the unrecognizable.

Not too long after that the fighting died down. Today we learned that despite their being direct and indirect fire fights in at least 5 locations throughout the city, only 5 US soldiers received minor injuries and were returned to duty before the sun came up. On the other side of the coin, one of those 5 locations reported 52 AIF dead. We also got pictures of some of the damage done. The most encouraging picture of all was one of an AIF "soldier" lying face up next to a mortar tube, with something of a surprised look on his face. His hair looked to be parted strangely. In reality the top left side of his head was missing. Speculation is that when he attempted to fire a mortar at us, the mortar cooked off too slowly and he got curious and decided to look down the tube to see why it hadn't fired. Timing is everything!

Things continue to be tense around here with Ramadan coming to a close and the events in Fallujah being what they are. The bad guys are looking for somewhere else to hole up. This may be that place. So the next couple of weeks should be exciting.

Happy Veteran's Day!

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Another Day at the Office

Lunch yesterday began as it always does. We wash our hands and move to the line to get chow. My Assistant, SGT Crawford, and I sat at a table with the hospital chaplain and a nurse. Earlier in the day there had been a mortar attack about 2 miles from where we are and the wounded were brought into the hospital, so as we ate they brought us up to speed as to the disposition of our soldiers. One KIA and the other two hurt pretty bad. So with that in mind we continued to chat and eat. Not too loog after that there was a rather loud boom. The people in the chow hall scattered like mice off a sinking ship. They cowered next to walls and ran outside to bunkers. SGT Crawford and I continued to eat. The next one was a touch closer and then...boom...closer still. By this time there weren't many people left in the chow hall but we continued to eat. Not that we are terribly brave or terrible stupid but the odds were definitely on our side. The fourth round hit about 4 or 5 hundred meters from out table and prudence said we should get down, just in case. So we knelt by the table and continued to eat. That fourth impact was something of a surprise to me as they usually come in threes. That one left a nice looking impact crater in the middle of our flightline. Nevertheless, once we were certain there would be no more we got back in our chairs and finished lunch.

That was the beginning of a very long and interesting night. Also that night, we enjoyed a concert by a guy named Russ Lee. He used to sing with Truth (Living Life Upside Down) and New Song. Now he sings solo and writes songs that other artists record. What a neat guy with a great testimony. The 5th Special Forces Group Chaplain arranged the whole thing. Well, as Russ sang and spoke and unashamedly preached the gospel, another very close, very large round hit...BOOM. The building actually shook. But we continued to sit and listen and he continued to sing. It was a great concert. There were several other smaller booms throughout the evening, as well. All said there was probably 20 mortars and rockets launched in our general direction.

This morning began with a very loud explosion at about 8am. And pretty much it's been a day of having stuff blow up. Well, our intelligence guys said that the bad guys have taken over several police stations in town and are working out of them. Apparently, someone figured out where they were staying because early this afternoon a Howitzer battery a mile or so from our position opened up. The sound of those things going off was musical. I'm tempted to feel sorry for Haji on the receiving end...nah! Now we are hearing news of 1 to 5 hundred AIF moving in our direction. We are at Threat-Con Delta (that's bad) awaiting a long night of mortars and gunfire.

However, as I sit here writing I'm at peace and confident not only in the abilities of our soldiers to destroy anyone stupid enough to even think of attacking us, but in God's ability and willingness to protect His people. So it's gonna be a long night with much happening, but as Russ Lee said to me only 3 minutes ago, "In my humble but accurate opinion, it's a bad night to be a bad guy!"

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Election Night Fireworks

One of the few benefits to living in an actual combat zone is the imminent danger pay. This is a small stipend paid to soldiers in designated places around the world that Congress feels puts them at risk of actually loosing their lives, or worse, their ability to play video games. Such is Iraq, most of it anyway. Well, in my little corner of Iraq imminent danger is generally kept at bay. Generally.

Today, as we all sat around in anticipation of the imminent election projections, there was an extremely large explosion about a quarter mile away that shook the building we were in and threatened to blow out the windows. I'm told these things always come in groups of 5 to 10 if they are mortar attacks. Well, this seemed to be an isolated explosion so we slowly ventured out to see if we could ascertain what had happened. That's when my First Sergeant was heard to say, "That Fu@#*& is burning down!" We looked to the horizon an there were flame shooting up about 100 plus feet with an occasional explosion type ball of fire and smoke like you'd see in a movie. It was both terrible and beautiful. None of the subsequent explosions were as loud or produced the kind of shock we all felt after the initial boom.

The primary assessment was that a rocket had hit the compound (the initial explosion) near a fuel depot (the subsequent explosions). However, the investigation the next day concluded that a connex (a small outdoor storage building) full of acetylene tanks had ignited when a spark produced when a soldier shut the large metal door lit the contents of one of the canisters that had a small leak. Acetylene is used for welding and is extremely flammable and explosive. The soldier at the door received very serious wounds and burns over much of his body and is not expected to live. Two others were injured as well. I am unsure of their disposition.

So today we earned our pay.