Sunday, May 20, 2007

Tidbits from Iraq

Lately I've been able to spend time with a veteran of the Iraq war. As always with someone who has been through something heavy, I let them bring it up. Once the topic is open I might ask a few questions, but if the information comes naturally from the flow of the conversation it is more likely to be candid, revelatory and helpful to us both.

Unfortunately, I can't take notes while we talk. Days have passed, so much of it loses the crispness it had when I first heard it. But I hold impressions.

He speaks casually about getting blown up, as if it were an everyday experience. He's been blown up a couple of times, apparently. It does not invariably maim and kill. He said there's a loud noise and you get thrown around. He suffered a gash on his head from the edge of his own helmet in one incident, as he was thrown into the windshield of the Humvee. He got stitched up and went back to work. He made it sound like just another occupational hazard. Certainly you have to view it that way if you are going to continue to work in that environment.

In random order, he's told about "slapping a corrupt sheik" while patrolling one neighborhood, and watching with amusement as a battling crowd of Iraqi children swarmed around candy he and his patrol had thrown to them. He said that Iraqis sympathetic to the occupation are more than happy to let American patrols work out of their houses, because it does bring some amount of order to the neighborhood. Mind you this was when he was there, in the place where he operated. He said his unit routinely escorted kids to school.

One day I clicked on a news video about something else and it dumped right into a report about the recent death of a Marine after the explosion of a roadside bomb.

"Sorry, man," I said.

"It's all right," he said. He really seemed unperturbed.

I haven't been in combat, but I've done dangerous things and known people who did dangerous things. We all develop a level of detachment or we quit doing the dangerous thing. No doubt our fighting forces are well-versed in this detachment. Not one of them believes it can't happen to him, but each must believe that his chances are best if he adheres to his training, and does his job. The ones who lose are the ones who made mistakes or whose luck ran out. No one lives forever.

Someone asked him what items he would really like to see in a care package from home. After various adult content was ruled out, he gave his suggestions.

"No peanut butter," he said. "There's tons of peanut butter over there. And don't send sunscreen."

Regarding personal grooming products he said that the Iraqis themselves use a lot of scents and cologne, and the women wear tons of makeup.

"Whenever we go into an Iraqi house, that stuff is everywhere. It's fun to try to squirt your buddy in the back with women's perfume."

Oh yeah: send baby wipes. Those they can use.

International phone cards are good, but $20 only gets about 5 minutes unless they're calling from a big base.

He said they like to get hard candy, not just to eat but to toss out to the kiddies.

"You wouldn't believe how they fight over that stuff. We just laugh, but they're kicking each other and everything.

"One time I got a bag of Tootsie Rolls. I hate Tootsie Rolls. So I gave them to the turret gunner and he threw the whole bag out in the road. Kids came out of nowhere. They were jumping off roofs. Pretty soon there was this whole crowd of them fighting for the Tootsie Rolls. They were punching and kicking each other, and hitting each other with stuff."

He talked about putting the cuffs on PUCs, blindfolding them, placing them in the cargo area of a Humvee (I think he said "throwing") and driving recklessly around the streets to deliver them to detainment.

A PUC is a "person under control."

Take thousands of aggressive young people who believed in combat enough to join a combat force. Drop them into a foreign country where friend and foe might look identical. Deprive them of a lot of clear-cut combat, but keep them in unpredictable levels of peril. They already tend to have fairly blunt senses of humor.

I like this guy. He got sucked into the war by accident. I believe he entered the reserves before 9-11-01. He doesn't want to reenlist. His two tours over there were enough. But while he's in he will do his job. He's moved up to sergeant now, which he says is more of a pain in the ass, but he rises to the responsibility. He will probably not go back, since his active period ends soon and he doesn't have a specialty in high demand.