Recreation in Balad

 One of the reasons Joint Base Balad is a favorite to soldiers is the large number of recreational activities available, in addition to the shopping.  JBB even has two pools (one indoor, one outdoor), and more interesting things to do than anywhere else in Iraq.

 

JBB has three major rec centers, and a number of other, smaller areas for recreation. There is the big East Side and West Side rec centers, on either side of the air field. These are large, 50,000 square foot buildings with computer games, phones, pool, ping-pong, and foosball tables. There is also the H-6 rec center, which has a small movie theater inside. In addition, there is the USO, and American Red Cross, which have areas to hang out and watch TV, or use phones and computers with internet.

 

Here is a picture of the exterior of the East Side rec center. It’s not much to look at, but gives you an idea of the size of the building:

rec-center-outside

 

The big rec centers have bomb shelters over their roofs, and Ugandan guards at the entrance to prevent suicide bombers from getting inside.

 

Because I live in H-6, I visit this center daily, but I also make it to the East Side center quite often also. Here’s the inside of the H-6 rec center, note all the airmen using wi-fi on their laptops:

h6-rec-center

 

Every rec center has a great deal of activities. If you’re ever interested, please visit the JBB newspaper website. Near the back, you’ll see a list of the full range of activities happening on this base:

 

http://www.dvidshub.net/index.php?script=pubs/pubs_show.php&id=140/

 

(you may have to click on “publications” and then click on “Expeditionary Times.” This is the JBB area newspaper).

 

The activities include dancing lessons (swing, country, salsa, Carribbean, and R&B). They have Dungeons and Dragons. I am a member of the JBB Plastic Model club, which is a fun place to spend an hour once a week. If you like board games, here is a sample of the selection, although I’ve never ever seen someone playing a board game:

board-games

The East Side center has free popcorn, and it’s the only place the Ugandan guards can go to hang out, so there are often a large number of Ugandans here, playing pool or even playing video games.

Many people come just to use the computers. They have free wi-fi in the building, so lots of people come to use the internet. At the rec centers, the wi-fi internet is terribly slow, to the point of being un-usable. The wired internet terminals have acceptable internet speeds. This post is being done on a wired terminal at the H-6 internet center, probably the best place on base for speedy internet.

 

Lots of people come to play video games on the computers:

computer-gamers-in-rec-center

The rec centers are staffed by TCN’s (third country nationals), mostly peopled from India and Nepal. These folks earn about $400 a month for sitting at a desk in the rec center for 12 hours a day. It’s a lot more than they’d earn working in Nepal, apparently. They are always friendly and nice to the military folks who come here.

 

So like I said before, there is no reason to ever be bored. The rec centers, libraries, movie theater, and your job will take up all of your time.

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The Half Way Point

At some point during the month of March 2009, we reached the half-way point through our deployment. I don’t know exactly, because the army won’t tell us exactly when we get to leave, of course.

I started pre-mobilization training on September 13, 2008. The training had two short breaks, but basically lasted until November 2008. I arrived in Iraq two days before Thanksgiving. So I’ve now spent close to four months in Balad.  Some active component folks spend 15 months — in Balad! 

The good thing is that I still get my 15 days “R & R” (rest and recreation, or leave). That will happen in early summer, which will be good because my children will be out of school.  I’m very fortunate. Mostly because I have a good wife and everything at home is well cared for. My two children are doing fine, and my wife’s parents live with her so that they can help take care of the children. In my line of work, I see many other family situations that are much worse than mine. Sometimes I see upwards of ten new divorce cases in a single day, and many of these cases involve small children who do not have a stable home environment, and whose parents just want to fight over everything.

So overall I’d say I’m pretty lucky. It is hard to be away from my family, and I hope to never have to do this again for that reason. But it will be over soon, and I’m halfway there. I do not keep track of days or mark them off on a calendar. There is a saying in Iraq: “Don’t count the days, make the days count.” And this is true. Sometimes I feel the hand of God in bringing me here.

Normally the army puts in new attorneys into this job, who have no experience. So I’m different because I have a great deal of knowledge and good business sense that may be lacking in the brand new attorneys who are normally doing legal assistance. There have been several situations where I’ve been able to give advice on a specific issue that was just right, which few other army attorneys would know about. For example, there was a guy who was losing his house to foreclosure and wanted to know what to do. The loan was $250K, and the house was worth under $175K. I told him to walk away from the house and take advantage of the single-action rule in his state that prohibits home mortgage lenders from suing the borrower. This was exactly the right advice, and two other military attorneys before me had told him the wrong advice (i.e., keep paying and try to work something out with the lender). I know a bit about immigration law, and have been very helpful to dozens of soldiers who had green cards and came to me trying to get their US Citizenship. One time a guy visited me. His wife had a small child and was 7 months pregnant, and needed his mother-in-law to get a visa to come to the US to help during the birth of the new baby. It just so happened I was in the same situation four years ago, and in my computer files I had the exact letter he needed to solve his situation and get the visa.

I do several other things also, and keep pretty busy. I’m the military magistrate, for our region of Iraq, and handle all the military search authorization requests. And I also handle all claims for this part of Iraq. Whenever a US truck runs over some house, I pay the Iraqi for his claim. So I’m proud of the good work I do for soldiers and airmen, and sometimes sailors and marines, here in Balad.

The weather is warming up a bit now, but it is still chilly at nights. And lately there have been quite a few DUSTSTORMS:

sandstorm

This is an actual picture that was taken recently at a nearby base.  The duststorms are becoming less frequent, thank goodness!

Shopping on Base

One of the strangest things is the strong desire of people to go shopping. American military personnel, in particular, seem to have an unquenchable thirst for it.  When we flew from the USA to Kuwait, we were all disoriented and a bit startled at the new environment. The very first day at Camp Buehring, pretty much every single person went to the Post Exchange (PX) and did some shopping, and after that people felt much better. Even the British soldiers were thronging the PX on Buehring.

 Here on Balad, we have one of the nicer shopping centers in Iraq. The PX itself is not the largest in Iraq, but it has the essentials. Here is a picture of the East Side PX. “Force Protection” of people who congregate at the PX is a key goal, so note that it is guarded by a Ugandan guard (carrying an M-16 weapon), and covered by a bomb shield:

entrance-to-px

Once inside, you’ll note that it looks like most any other store, although it is much smaller than any PX or department store you’d find in the US:

inside-the-px

In the entranceway, there are several other shops, such as a barber and even an ISP vendor. Some local vendors also are selling trinkets and perfumes.

gift-shop

The thing that amazes me is how useless most of this stuff is. People spend their good money on paintings, rugs, and carved marble camels. Most of this is made in India and shipped here. And the big problem is that once you buy this stuff, you will have a hard time sending it back home due to the weight restrictions and baggage limitations on the return flight. So as a result, you must either pay a high fee to ship the stuff home, or more likely than not discard the stuff at the end of your tour.

 

Nonetheless, there are always a throng of shoppers in the PX. Balad actually has two PX’s, one on each side of the base. During mid-day, there are long lines stretching throughout the store, and you could wait a half hour to make your purchase. People buy stuff like energy drinks, TV’s and refrigerators, Iraq-themed clothing or mementos, and daily necessities like socks or toothpaste. They have a wide selection of DVD’s and magazines, games, and pretty much anything else that you’d need during your stay. The urge to shop is great, and AAFES (Army & Airforce Exchange Service, the organization that runs this whole racket) has a lock on this market. It is absolutely amazing to see how eager people are to go shopping here. It was once said that you could set up a table with bags of poop in the PX, and someone would eventually buy it. Of course, I frown on all this, because I know the problems with buying junk described above. In fact, I often go weeks, or even months, without spending a penny.

 

Outside the PX proper, they have several trailers where vendors sell other things, like T-shirts, Iraqi trinkets, jewelry or leather goods, bicycles, and the like. There is even a new-car buying program, so that you can buy a car, and start paying for it while overseas, but you have to wait until you return to the US to get the actual vehicle. Supposedly you get a discount for doing this:

outside-vendors

And here is one more amazing thing. The food court. It’s built in a nice looking wooden theme, with picnic tables and a large outdoor seating area. Pizza Hut, Burger King, Subway, Cinnabon, and a few other vendors sell food and drink to the military crowd.  It’s pretty popular, in part because it also offers free wi-fi, so you often see many soldiers using their laptops here:

food-court

I am somewhat proud of the fact that I’ve never spent a penny of my money on any of these food vendors during my four months here. All one need do is take a 2-minute bike ride to the DFAC (dining facility), and you get all the food and drink you want for free.

Balad is so popular that people come from outlying FOB’s and spend there time here just shopping, dining, and going to the movies. I guess if you were at a small FOB with nothing to do, this would all seem very exciting to you. No doubt about it, shopping is one of the big attractions here in Jont Base Balad.

Camp Slayer

 After my tour of the International Zone in Baghdad, I took the Rhino, along with the rest of the convoy, to return back to Victory Base. We were picked up by Captain Paul Thompson, a nice fellow from Fayetteville, AR, who is here on his second tour. Paul was kind enough to give a short tour to me and a pair of Marine captains who were at the conference.

 

The main thing that I wanted to see was Camp Slayer. This has several other palaces, and a place called “Flintstones Village.” But there are several other sights at Slayer, such as many palaces and a large artificial lake.  The palaces include the Perfume Palace, a place allegedly used by Saddam and his henchmen as a brothel:

perfume-palace

And also the “Victory over America Palace,” which was never completed, and was heavily damaged during the war:

voa-palace

My favorite part of Camp Slayer was the Flintstones Village. It is so called because it resembles something you’d see in the TV Show “the Flintstones.” Saddam had it built for his friends and family for the amusement of their children. It is now very run down and covered with graffiti by GI’s. Here is what it looks like now:

flintstones-1

flintstones-2(CPT Thompson is on the left in this pic)

Camp Slayer is a strange place. Lots of high ranking people live here, because it is possible to get one of the old Baath party villas on the lake, which is pretty posh. Soldiers live in the old Saddam era palaces in some places. And they have an amusing sign at the entrance to Camp Slayer:

welcome-to-camp-slayer

After our hour and a half at Slayer, Paul Thompson took me over to the airfield.  This particular airfield was just a large gravel field in the middle of nowhere known as the “Liberty Command Pad,” and it’s supposedly where generals fly in.  I was scheduled to go on a flight with some general, but that flight got cancelled. So I ended up spending two hours standing out in the dark at the Command Pad, in the dark, watching bats fly around eating the bugs in the sky. I finally got fed up and walked back to the main Liberty Helipad. After an hour or two of waiting, I got on a Blackhawk flight that was heading to Balad.

 

First we stopped at the Baghdad International Airport, then we stopped somewhere else to refuel, then we stopped at some FOB in the middle of nowhere, and finally we made it to Balad. It was a long flight, and the body armor and helmet made sitting for so long very uncomfortable.  We were relieved when we returned to Catfish air finally.  I was home by about midnight on Saturday, Feb. 28. I was very happy to be able to take a shower and sleep in my own bed.

It was a nice adventure.  This will probably be my only trip to Baghdad, or indeed anywhere outside of Joint Base Balad, on my tour of duty over here.  So I’m glad I made the most of it.

 

The Green Zone

 The claims conference lasted most of the day on Friday. It was productive, and much good information was taught about how to handle issues relating to claims, such as US forces crashing into Iraqi cars, taking over Iraqi houses, or other such problems.

 

The one downside to the conference was Victory Base itself. Most of the base is a dusty, rambling place that is confusing to newcomers. It is big, and so it’s hard to walk anywhere. Finally, they put us into some old tents that were caked with dust, and poorly lit. So the accommodations were not the best, but I was able to sleep very well at night due to being tired from the day’s efforts.

 

I didn’t do much on Friday night other than check my email, and then get to bed early. Friday brought a big dust storm, so flights were cancelled and there was little to do anyway. Saturday, however, turned out to be a very fun day. I’d arranged to go to the “International Zone,” which is sometimes referred to as the “Green Zone.” This is where all the foreign governments keep their embassies. The US still has a large military presence in the IZ, but overall control has been given back to the Iraqis.

 

To get from Camp Victory to the IZ, you must either fly on a helicopter or go in a convoy. I went in a convoy, which consisted of several heavily armed MRAP’s, and a Rhino. A Rhino is an armored bus. It’s the most comfortable way to go in a convoy, and reserved for higher ranking folks. I’d never seen a Rhino before, but here is what it looks like:

rhino

(Note the mine detector sticking out in front).

They let us off in the IZ around 8AM, and we got breakfast. My first stop was to see the new US Embassy. It’s a brand new, and is a very sterile and un-interesting set of buildings:

embassy

There are buses run by KBR (a big US contractor here in Iraq) that take you around in the IZ. It’s too large to just walk. My next stop was to take a bus over to Camp Prosperity, a small enclave army base in the IZ. It has a few of the old Saddam palaces and playgrounds, and is a very amusing place:

prosperity-gate

The headquarters in Camp Prosperity is an old palace that is converted into a US military headquarters, as well as a gym.

prosperity-gym

 

They also had an Iraqi market, where you can buy pirated DVD’s. This is quite common on US military bases in Iraq.

 

After seeing Camp Prosperity, I then went to see the parade grounds. Here is the standard photo that everyone takes of this area:

crossed-swords-baghdad

 

I also saw the new Iraqi government building, known as the old Presidential Palace. You can’t go in unless you are a member of the Iraqi Parliament or on official business. Near by, they a picture of Saddam that had been defaced, with the words “Iraq good, US good, Saddam Donkey” written above Hussein’s head. Here is the closest I got to the Iraqi parliament building:

presidential-palace

I had lunch at Freedom Rest, a little hotel and spa used for soldiers to vacation in the IZ. It has a large swimming pool, nice recreational activities, and several pleasant hotel rooms and a spacious lobby. It’s a very nice place:

freedom-rest

At about 2:30, I had to get back to take the convoy to return to Camp Victory. The IZ is an interesting place. It’s run by the Iraqi’s, and it was my first time to be outside the confines of a US military base. The IZ is probably the safest place in Iraq outside of a US base, but I enjoyed the adventure. The return convoy went well. I was in a Rhino again. There have been something like 2,000 convoys over the past few years between the IZ and Camp Victory, and there has never been an incident. It’s about the safest way possible to get “outside the wire.”

 

Tomorrow, I’ll finish off my description of my trip to Baghdad.

The Al Faw Palace

 On Thursday last week, we had a big tour of the Al Faw Palace. The palace was built by Saddam Hussein to commemorate a victory in the Al Faw peninsula over the Iranians in the Iran/Iraq war back in 1988.

It has a grand atrium:

al-faw1

It has ornate marble staircases:

af-stair

It has painted plasterworks on the ceilings:

plaster-ceiling

On the roof, there are great views of the surrounding palaces and artificial lakes, although when you get higher up you notice how the palace is crumbling in several places:

af-roof

Currently, the Al Faw Palace is used as the headquarters for US and Coalition forces in Iraq. There are several generals who work in the building, and security is the tightest I’ve seen anywhere in Iraq. This is the one place where I’ve seen armed, American guards standing watch. Normally there are Ugandan guards at most facilities. The palace has Saddam Hussein’s initials all over the place, at the top of most every column, as well as Arabic writings praising Saddam and describing his brilliant victories. The building itself, while impressive, is poorly constructed, and there are several places where the marble has come loose, and you see chickenwire and plaster underneath. It’s really a very tacky building when you look at it up close. The tour guide made sure to tell us grisly tales of all the people murdered by Saddam during his reign right there in the vicinity of the palace.

 

The palace has a very interesting chair, which was donated to Saddam Hussein by Yasser Arafat of the Palestinians. It shows the dome of the rock up by the headrest. It’s probably the most photographed chair in the world, with US soldiers constantly making their obligatory photo shoots in Saddam Hussein’s old palace chair. Here is my attempt to channel old Saddam Hussein:

brian-on-saddam-hussein-chair

 

After the tour, we had the first session of the claims conference. After that came one of the most memorable times that I’ve had here in Iraq. We had a big JAG party on the deck of the palace hotel, right by the lake that overlooks the Al Faw palace. A good portion of the JAG attorneys in Iraq stopped by to meet and mingle. The SJA and deputy for MNC-I were there, Vice President Joe Biden’s son was there, and also present were a few good friends of mine who are based in Baghdad, most of whom I hadn’t seen in a year. We had a bit of dinner and non-alcoholic drinks, and then someone broke out the cigars. A fire was lit in the fireplace, producing a warm glow. It was a very pleasant scene:

evening-party

That’s enough for today. I’ll describe my trip to the Green Zone tomorrow.

The Road to Baghdad

 Last Thursday, I flew from Balad to Baghdad to attend an army conference dealing with claims (e.g., when a military truck runs over an Iraqi house, and we have to pay for the resulting claim). So I woke up at 3AM on Thursday, and went over to a place called “Catfish Air” over on the west-side of Balad. It’s right on the airfield. I’d already reserved a flight. Around 6:30AM, they called us up, and took us out to the airfield, where I saw the Blackhawk helicopter that was to take me to Victory Base, Baghdad. This helicopter was flown by a unit with the Florida National Guard:

blackhawk1

We strapped ourselves in, and lifted up over the Balad airfield. Here is a photo from the air. Notice the concrete bunkers used to house some aircraft:

airfield at balad

A few minutes into the flight, we were above the Tigris River. The machine-gunners on each side suddenly shot a few rounds on their weapons. This was surprising and a little frightening to me, to suddenly hear some gunfire on my first trip outside the wire of Balad. I am not sure why they did this, as there was no threat to us. I guess they were clearing their weapons or making sure they fired properly, and all they did was shoot 2-3 rounds into the Tigris River. Our flight continued as we soared above the Iraqi farmland.

farmland

I rather enjoyed the flight:

 brian-in-blackhawk

I also caught a glimpse of a large ziggurat on the way in to Baghdad, but was too slow with my camera and did not take a picture of it. It was about a 20 minute flight, and we landed at the Camp Liberty Helipad, and then took a bus over to Camp Victory and the JAG office over there. We were just in time to catch a tour of the Al Faw Palace. This palace was the grandest of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces, and sits in the middle of an artificial lake. You reach it by walking over a strip of land. It is heavily guarded, as this is now the headquarters for US Forces in Iraq. More on the Al Faw palace tomorrow, but here is a picture of it. My friends Nick King and Adam Siegler, two California reserve attorneys like myself, are in the foreground:

al-faw-palace1

The main purpose of the trip was to go to the claims conference. So that is what we did for the afternoon. A claims specialist came out from the US to teach us all. The class was held in the fancy hotel next to the Al Faw Palace. It is another semi-palace like structure. Today, you have to be a general or other important person to stay at this hotel. Here is a picture of the conference room, to give you an idea of what the hotel looks like:

conference

 

Anyway, I’m tired for now, but tomorrow will describe Camp Victory and the rest of Al Faw Palace.