Christmas in Iraq

 

I arrived in Iraq two days before Thanksgiving.  Yesterday was
Christmas.  It was actually a pretty fun day, all things considered. 

The day started with a 5k run.  Thousands of people were greeted at
6:30Am with a short speech by a couple of generals, and then we ran 5K
through Joint Base Balad.  There were thousands of people running, and
it was a fun time.  At the end, they gave out free t-shirts, YAY!  (here they are throwing shirts from a truck):

float1

The next big event for the day was a Christmas Parade.  Now being in
Iraq in a combat zone is somewhat surreal anyway.  But having a
Christmas Parade in that combat zone just added to the bizarre nature of
having the holiday so far away from home.  The parade route was about two
miles long, but there were very few people, except at the reviewing
stand.  Even there, total attendance was under 200.  The parade itself
consisted of about 7 “floats,” which were just military vehicles
decorated and people walking along throwing out candy.  Here are a few
pictures from the parade:

humvee-parade

humvee-ambulance
After watching the parade (which took about 15 minutes), I got a
haircut, and then decided to go to DFAC #1  (the main dining facility)
for my Christmas dinner.  As with Thanksgiving, the food was very good,
and the decorations were amazing.  I ate so much that I was completely
stuffed.  During the meal, I watched “White Christmas,” the 1950’s
movie, in the Healthy Bar with WO1 Morphis.  I like that place because
it is a lot quieter and more peaceful.  Anyway, here are a few photos
from the big Christmas dinner at DFAC #1:

My friends, 1LT Chris Parker and WO1 David Morphis, in front of a
cookie/cracker house with pop-tart siding:

parker-morphis

santa-claus

I was quite stuffed when I left to go use the internet.  The web, and
phones, were completely clogged on Christmas day because many people had
the day off, and EVERYONE was trying to call home.  They had free phone
calls all day, which was nice, but also added to the congestion.  I gave
up after waiting for quite a while.  Then I went to the USO where I
typically hang out in the evenings.  They had free pizza and
non-alcoholic beer.

The last big thing of the day was to go to the JBB Variety Show.  They
had the base band there, and several other acts/singers putting on their
singing performances.  One singer was pretty good, but the rest were
terrible.  It was like watching the early auditions of American Idol,
except I couldn’t hit the “mute” button.  I walked out of that about
half-way through.

So that was my Christmas, more or less.  It was a pretty fun day over
all, and it was nice to have the day off, which many soldiers do not
get.  The army and folks back home really do a lot to try to make us
happy over here, and it mostly worked.  After the variety show, I rode
my bike home through the dark streets of the base.  There were a few
bright spots, like this Christmas tree on provider circle (note the
large MRAP on the road beside the tree):

lit-tree

My Office in Balad, Iraq

This is the building where I work.  It’s painted to look like a castle,
with a blue sky above.  I don’t know who thought of the idea to make the
JBB Consolidated Legal Center look like a castle, but it was an
absolutely brilliant idea!  Our building is right on Pennsylvania
Avenue, which is the main drag for Balad, and the castle motif makes it
one of the most noticeable buildings on the entire base.  Here is the front entrance

(notice the water bottles stacked up on the right behind a small concrete barrier):

office-outside1

 

There is even a dungeon, where some eyes peer out from under the rubble (this is the side entrance, where most people come into our building):
office-outside2

One weird thing.  In the gravel parking lot outside our building, there
are two Chevy SUV’s.   So what
do you do with a Chevy Trailblazer that has been bombed and has body
damage on its left side?  Why, you put it in the parking lot of the
legal center and leave it there for a few years, of course.  Here is the
picture:
bombed-car

Anyway, here is my office, and a picture of me in it.  I’ve decorated it
with pictures of my kids, and several by my kids.  I am glad I have
these artworks from Judy and Rebecca, because I love looking at them and
they remind me of my family back home.  Here I am in my office:

me-in-my-office

My job is the legal assistance attorney for the whole base.  Here is
what I do, according to my OER support form:
Chief of Legal Assistance for Joint Base Balad, Iraq.  The JBB
Consolidated Legal Center provides legal assistance to the military
community at JBB consisting of approximately 30,000 military and DA
civilian personnel, as well as several thousand more personnel at
outlying areas of operations.  Lead two enlisted Soldiers, E-5 and E-3
paralegals.  Manage all operations, insuring that the office is always
staffed during duty hours and is ready for customer service.  Enhance
mission readiness by providing legal advice and counsel to military and
civilians in a competent, courteous, and caring manner, pertaining to
issues such as family law, debtor/creditor issues, immigration,
OER/NCOER appeals, FLIPL rebuttals, Article 138 complaints.  Perform
legal reviews on Special Immigrant Visa packets.  Run JBB Tax Center.
Act as Claims Officer.  Perform other duties directed by 3d ESC SJA.
I enjoy my work.  It is quite similar to my private practice.  I
help people with their legal problems
.  A lot of my work deals with
family law issues, but it could be just about any legal issue that
someone wants to discuss.  I do get a few strange people walking into my office from time to time, but of course I do my best to help everyone.    I also have some administrative responsibilities, like supervising the two junior soldiers, and doing weekly reports on client activity.  It’s a pretty good job.  Lots of soldiers have to work in vehicle maintenance bays, or go outside the base on missions, or do other kinds of hard, dirty jobs.  I just do my legal work in my office, so I am not going to complain.

No, I did Not see President Bush Yesterday

He was in Baghdad, Iraq, yesterday.  He flew in, had his meeting and press conference, and then flew out.  He did not come to Balad Air Base, to the best of my knowledge.

But on Saturday, we had other visitors.  General Odierno, the overall commander of Iraq, had lunch with Secretary of Defense Gates at the Oasis Dining Facility.  That is where I usually have lunch too.  They have a room there called the “Healthy Bar,” which is a place to get healthy, low-fat food in a quieter room, off from the main dining hall which has hundreds of people at any given time.  Anyway, Secretary Gates and General Odierno had lunch in the Healthy Bar, and they closed off the room to anyone else, including me.  I was a bit irritated at that.  There was a large group of people following these two high level officials around.  I spoke with some DOD civilians wearing suits (anyone wearing suits is a strange sight on this base).  So I ate lunch elsewhere, and never got a glimpse of the high profile visitors to my normal lunch spot.

I had a nice lunch at the Healthy Bar today, but it was marred by a later visit to the Ice Cream Bar.

Home Sweet Home

Here is the place where I live. 

chu

 

Note the 12-foot high concrete barriers.  These barriers surround pretty
much every building on post where people spend any amount of time.  And
as shown in my last post, they have mortar shields built over the top of
any structure where crowds of people might gather, such as the theater,
the chapel, the dining facility, the post exchange (shopping area), the
gym, and so on.  A few key places have armed Ugandan guards out in front
at all times, such as the theater/gym area, the PX, and all dining
facilities.  Everyone must show US Government ID to enter these special
buildings, and nobody is allowed to enter if he has a bag, this is to
prevent someone from coming in with a bomb.

But anyway, back to where I live, which is surrounded by the concrete
barriers.  It’s just a bed, dresser and desk.  Seen below:

room1
room21
I just bought a small TV and fridge.  The truth is that I spend very
little time in my room, except when I’m sleeping.  There is little to do
here, and it is much preferable to go out to the gym to workout, or to
the recreation center, or to watch a movie, or read a book, or anything
other than sitting in my room.

You’ll note that there is no running water in my room.  For bathroom
purposes, I have to go out to either the toilet trailer, or the shower
trailer, which is here:

shower

It can be very crowded early in the morning, so I prefer to shower in
the evening.

It gets very cold at night.  The AC unit also works as heater, but I
hate having it on all night, so usually it gets turned off right when I
go to sleep.

The room is reasonably comfortable.  The only problem is the constant
roar of fighter jets, transport planes, and helicopters, but after a
week, I have gotten used to this.  It doesn’t wake me up any more.
There are exceptions:  today a helicopter flew right over my head at
5:45, which did wake me up.  The bed is fine, and I’ve slept well every
night. 

I’m in the best housing area on post.  It’s known as the H-6 area, and
it’s surrounded by a fence.  In the middle of the area is a gym, a rec
center, a small shopping area with a library, rec center.  There’s a
chapel.  It’s really a nice, gated community.  Most of those who live
here are Air Force personnel, and I’ve heard that the AF is trying to
kick all Army folks out of this area, which will annoy me to no end if
it happens.  The Air Force people get the best of everything, nicer
living area, 6-month tours (much shorter than Army tours), etc.

Here is a picture of the whole H-6 housing area, note the numerous
concrete barriers, and airfield in the distance:

housing-area

MAJ Brian Nomi
Chief, Legal Assistance
Consolidated Legal Center
Joint Base Balad
brian.nomi@iraq.centcom.mil
DSN 318.433.2836

First Impressions

I’ve been here at Balad, Iraq for over a week now.  It is hard to get access to a computer that allows me to use the internet, write in my blog, or upload photos.  So anyway, here is a little bit of information about my first week.

In Kuwait, we took a bus from Buehring to the Ali Al Salem military airbase.  We lucked out, because they had a C-17 Globemaster aircraft just for us.  The aircraft is gigantic, it’s one of the largest transport planes in the world and is about 4 stories high from the ground to the top of its tail (see photo below):

the-c17
We loaded up all our people and duffel bags onto this plane, and after waiting only a half hour, we took off.  Here is a picture from the inside of the plane (next to MSG Minto):

in-plane

The flight itself was under an hour.  It was very smooth.  But it was a bit uncomfortable, because we all had to wear our body armor and carry our weapons, and also carry our backpacks on our laps, which gave us very little room to move, and contributed to a claustrophobic feeling during the flight.

Anyway, when we landed, they made us all go over to the passenger terminal, where we watched a 15-minute video on how to react in case of a mortar or rocket attack.  Basically, if you are near a concrete bunker, you get into it.  Otherwise, get on the ground and ‘duck and cover.’  I haven’t seen or heard of any attack since we arrived.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen very many Iraqi’s, it’s all US soldiers or contractors here.  It is really very safe on this base.

Here is the welcome sign for those coming to JBB (Joint Base Balad):

welcome-to-jbb
As I think I explained before, JBB is a big base, with about a 20-mile diameter and perhaps 25 square miles.  Much of the base consists of the airfield right in the middle.  All around the base is a large dirt berm, and several barbed wire fences with guard towers, motion detectors, and lots of security personnel (mostly Ugandan contractors).  You are never allowed to go off of the base, unless you are on a military convoy, and all such vehicles are heavily armed, armored, and guarded.  There will be no chance for me to go on such a convoy, so I’ll spend my entire deployment sitting here in the middle of this giant fortress.

 Within the perimeter of the base is all sorts of activities.  The airfield is the key function of the base, and it’s the busiest airfield in the military world, and the second busiest airport in the entire world.  The base is a logistical hub for all of Iraq.  The base is so large, and has so many occupants (over 35,000) that it has its own newspaper and even a website hosting a weekly TV show.  Also within the perimeter of the base are many storage warehouses, equipment yards, vehicle maintenance areas, living quarters (seven different communities), a few shopping areas, two large swimming pools, several gyms and recreation centers (that offer everything from dance lessons to talent shows), military headquarters, a hospital, and a big movie theater (note the mortar shield built over the theater itself):

theater

The base is divided into the East side and West side, depending on which side of the airfield you are on.  I live and work on the East side, which is great because that is where most of the shopping, theaters, and recreation centers are.  I’ll describe my living area in more detail next time.  Suffice it to say for now, that all living and working areas on the base are heavily fortified with large, concrete barriers to protect in case of a mortar attack.  This may have been necessary in 2006, but like I said, it’s been a long time since an attack has succeeded in getting anywhere near us here on Balad.

My first impression of the place is that it’s a bit of a disappointment.  Everyone in the military who has been here has built up the place in my mind.  It’s not like visiting Disneyland, it’s just a large, dusty military base north of Baghdad.  I can see that if someone had just spent 13 months on one of the FOB’s (forward operating bases), which are really miserable, then that person would view JBB as heaven on earth.  It’s OK, overall.  The food is good, there are several recreational activities and no reason to ever be bored, and plenty of shopping areas where you can blow your money if you so choose.  And if you know me, you know how likely it is that I will blow my money on buying stupid trinkets.  I think I’ve spent well under $100 a month during the 3 months of my deployment thus far.

Other impressions are that at least they have trees here.  There is vegetation growing on some spots of the ground.  The place is very dusty, because the roads are not in great shape, and several roads are just dirt and gravel.  After trucks go over these gravel roads a few thousand times, they become very dusty, and a little wind will blow the dust all over.  And any little bit of rain turns the entire base into a mud pit.  Last week it rained for a few hours and some parts of the base are still wet and slippery with mud. 

There are always military vehicles going all over the place, like this one (one of the newer Strykers):

armored-vehicle
There are also many civilian vehicles, mostly trucks and SUV’s.  The base is a busy, industrial hub of the military here in Iraq.

Anyway, that’s about it for now.  It’s December in northern Iraq, and it is actually very cold at nights and in the morning.  The afternoons tend to be sunny and mild.  They say it could snow here if it gets cold enough.