Eating

 When I leave Iraq, one thing I’ll miss is the DFAC. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner: there is an amazing array of foods served in a pleasant environment.

 

So here is a lunch for me on a typical day. I have to ride my bike over to the DFAC. There are four different DFAC’s on this base, three on the east side (where most people live and work), and one on the west side of the airfield. A normal day for me involves going to breakfast at DFAC #2, close to where I live. Lunch at DFAC #1, because that is the biggest and fanciest. Then dinner at DFAC #3, because that is close to most of the evening hang-outs that I frequent. Note that these places all have names. Nobody uses the names, however, we just call them DFAC 1, 2, 3 or 4.

 

Yesterday, I ate lunch at DFAC 1. It’s the biggest DFAC on base, and fanciest as well. You enter by passing the Ugandan guards (note the masks they were wearing to protect against the dust storm):

ugandan-guards

 

You then enter the main facility. They have clearing barrels which can be used to clear a weapon if you have chambered a round in your weapon.  Army personnel are required to wear their weapon in order to enter to eat:

entrance

 

Upon entering, you are required to wash your hands at the hand-washing stations:

handwashing

 

Then you must scan your card to the guy at the entrance who will then press his clicker, recording the fact that one more person entered for a meal. This is one of the most boring jobs on this base:

card-scanner

 

 

Upon entering, you can join any of a number of meal stations. You pick up a tray, plastic plate, and plastic utensil pack (some silverware is available in DFAC 1 at certain stations, but the disposable plastic ware suits me fine). There is the main line, the short-order (corn-dogs, chicken wings, pizza), the grill with burgers, hotdogs and usually gyros, the sandwich bar, the potato or pasta bar, and the healthy bar. There are also two large salad bars on either side of the dining hall. In short, there is an endless variety of food to eat, and it is very easy to over-indulge. You could eat red meat for each meal of the day if you wanted, and some people do. The portions are large, and the food is well prepared. The novelty has worn off, and I don’t pig out any more, thank goodness.

Here is a view of the main serving line:

serving-line

 

And the salad bar:

salad-bar

The sandwich bar has several delicious breads, meats, and a sandwich grill on which to toast your sandwich:

sandwich-bar

 

The downfall of many soldiers is the ready availability of desserts. There is both an ice cream bar, and a pastry bar: Here are some photos of the delights that await you at these stations:

ice-cream-bar

pastry-bar

 

The flavors of ice cream are: Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry, Cookies & Cream, Jamoca Almond Fudge, and Pralines and Cream. Same 6  flavors at all 4 DFAC’s:

ice-cream

But the DFAC’s have different ice cream toppings.  Each DFAC has certain specialties.  At DFAC #3 (my normal dinner spot), they have tiny banana bread bits to put on your ice cream!  Here are some of the toppings at DFAC 1:

ice-cream-treats

 

DFAC 1 holds well over a thousand people, and during lunchtime it is roaring with activity. There are 30,000 personnel who eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and mid-night meals at this base. Here is a photo showing the crowd at lunchtime at DFAC 1:

large-dining-room

 

 

You may have noticed the servers are all TCN’s (third country nationals). Most are from Nepal, India, or somewhere nearby those countries. They come here to work, and make about $400 a month. They have to pay about $2,000 or $3,000 to an agent just to get here, so they work for free for the first year almost. Some stay for many years working here. They are always friendly, and do a good job of serving. I feel sorry for people in India or Nepal who have such tough economic times that they have to come to Iraq to work for such low pay, however.

 

Anyway, that is a normal lunchtime here on Joint Base Balad, at DFAC 1. I get a little nervous at DFAC 1. Several years ago, 14 soldiers were killed in a DFAC bombing in Mosul, which is why we have the Ugandan guards standing watch outside each and every DFAC. 

So when I eat at DFAC 1, I always go into the healthy bar. This is a small room off to the side where they serve healthier, low-fat foods. I often meet someone I know in here, and can have a nice talk in this quieter environment:

 

healthy-bar

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Getting used to Iraq

I’m more than half-way through the deployment now. Hard to believe. It seems like I’ve been here a long time. Everywhere I go on base, someone knows who I am, such as a former client or a work-related contact. Joint Base Balad is not such a bad place, really. We have good food, movies, recreational outlets, and the work is fine. I’m earning less than what I made back in California, but my pay here is completely tax-free due to the combat-zone tax exclusion, so it comes out being close to my normal pay.

Some people spend years and years working here, and make a lot of money doing so. As for me, I am glad that this will be my only year here. I am also glad that my wife and children don’t have to come to this place, because it’s not a safe place overall. Mortar rounds and rockets fall on us a few times a month, luckily no military personnel have been injured since I arrived here. A few contractors have been hurt, though.

Gravel and uneven sidewalks are everywhere, so you’d better be wearing good combat boots or your feet will be hurting. At night, the streets are poorly lit, if at all, causing other safety hazards. But like I said, it’s not all bad over here, once you get used to things.

One thing that took a few weeks to get used to was wearing a weapon everywhere. Luckily, as a major, I get to have a 9mm pistol, which is not so heavy. But all US Army soldiers must carry their weapons, with ammunition, wherever they go. The only exceptions are doing PT (physical training exercise), or taking a shower. But after a while, seeing a crowd of people with M-16 weapons and other rifles is just normal, even in places like church or the movie theater. In fact, you cannot enter a dining facility without your weapon! If you look back at the photos of me, you’ll notice that in most every picture, I’m carrying my pistol.

I sleep very well every night, even though jets take off and land a few hundred yards away from me. The noise doesn’t bother me any more. Helicopters, mostly blackhawks flying in pairs, buzz overhead at any time of the day or night. Back home, seeing a helicopter is somewhat rare. Just the other day as I was walking past the basketball court, two blackhawks flew about 100 feet overhead creating a great deal of noise, and most people didn’t even bother to look up.

Balad is a brown place, due to the dust and overall color scheme of most buildings. Brown and yellowish hues are everywhere, and you rarely see bright colors or green vegetation. If I were to spend an hour in Washington State, where everything is green, it would be a shock. The dust gets all over everything. After every dust storm, you’ll find a fine layer of dust on your desk or in your room. There is almost no grass on base. And everywhere there is gravel. JBB has several miles of reasonably nice, paved roads, but it also has a great many unpaved roads covered with gravel, as well as equipment yards filled with gravel. The crunching sound of walking on 5-6 inches of gravel everywhere I go has also become normal. JBB must have several cubic miles of gravel spread out all over, because you are never more than a few feet away from walking on gravel.

There are strange vehicles everywhere, MRAP’s and armored Humvees. There are also the odd Turkish contractor vehicles and waste water vehicles. They all look normal to me now. And they have T-walls everywhere, and around most every building. These are the concrete walls intended to act as blast shields in a mortar attack. You’ve seen plenty in my past photos.

Here is something that still gets me every time I think about it: Almost everyone is thin, or at least not greatly overweight, and seeing someone who is fat is very rare. You never see a handicapped person here. And most people are wearing some kind of uniform. Even the US Civilians were old uniforms, just without rank or unit patches. Many of the third country national contractors, and some US contractors, do not wear uniforms. So there are some folks in civilian clothing here, but even they wear sturdy boots, mostly.

And one other thing that I still notice when I think about it: There are no children at all on this base. I miss my own children very much. It’s weird to think that it has been many months since I saw an actual child in person. Seeing children will take some “getting used to” when I’m home, but I am certainly looking forward to that!

I didn’t see Barack either…. But I did get to drive an MRAP!

 

This has been a more interesting week than usual in Iraq. We were all surprised to hear about President Obama making a surprise visit to Camp Victory. If you look back a few weeks, you’ll see that I described Camp Victory in some detail. My guess is that Obama met with soldiers at the Al Faw palace, and spent some time with Iraqi leaders and US Generals around that area. Security is always tight there, but incredibly so for that visit!

Camp Victory is part of the Victory Base Complex that completely surrounds the Baghdad Airport (BIAP). It’s in the SouthWest part of Baghdad, sort of on the outskirts of the city. It’s about 60 miles south of where I am in Balad.

 

Obama had much to say. I tend to base my judgments on what I see, not what others say. What I see is this: The US is building lots of new facilities on a few centralized bases. There is no slow-down in construction or missions. We’re spending millions of dollars on new stuff all the time. The US is getting ready to stay for the long haul, just like we are in Germany or Japan 60+ years later. I think that we’ll have 50,000 troops here for the next 20 years, at least. There will be no big, sudden pull-out.

 

Anyway, something even more interesting than Obama’s visit happened. We had a morning at the MRAP (mine resistant armor plated vehicle) site. The director of the MRAP program here is a Mr. Brotherwood, a Department of the Army Civilian. He gave a great talk and described many of the components of an MRAP. Here is a picture of him showing us the heavy, external armor plating:

 

brotherwood

There are several other civilians who work on MRAP’s and they are very skilled mechanics. Some are DA or DOD civilians, some are contractors. DOD civilians wear uniforms, but without rank or unit patches. Contractors wear civilian clothes:

 

civilians-by-mrap

The MRAP site does great work to field new MRAPs, or to repair any damaged MRAPs and get them back in service. MRAPs are useful because they are enormous, and heavily armored. They have a “V” shaped hull, to deflect blasts away from passengers. They have a good ability to survive any kind of attack, and the people who work at the MRAP program take pride in protecting soldiers who ride in MRAPs. They are not cheap, building one costs about $400,000 or more, and with all the extra electronics and other systems installed, the total cost for all equipment in an MRAP could be as high as $1 million. And get this, the military has recently fielded its 10,000th MRAP! But it’s worth it, because the MRAP definitely saves lives and does a much better job than the Humvee ever did. One bad thing is that there are at least 4 variants of MRAPs, and parts are usually not interchangeable. So the cost for managing parts is very high. This is because the military needed MRAPs quickly, and had to order from several different manufacturers (BAE Systems, International, Force Protection Industries, and another).

row-of-mraps

(the MRAP above is a Cougar, and has an ambulance red-cross, for all the good that will do)

Here is a giant tent used to work on MRAPs:

mrap-shed

 

One interesting thing is the tires. They are about 3.5 feet in diameter, and cost $600 each. They are designed to run-flat for up to 30 miles if necessary:

 

tire

 

The last part of the tour was to view some battle damaged MRAPs, and that was a sobering sight. But almost all of the MRAPs, while sustaining damage to the mechanical systems outside the hull, served their purpose in protecting the people inside. So like I said, the MRAP tour was very interesting. We were all grateful to Mr. Brotherwood and the other civilians for showing us around. I gave him a coin on behalf of the JAG (legal) office.

 

After the tour, some contractors volunteered to give us a chance to drive around on the MRAP training course. They spend 40 hours giving instruction to drivers here, to learn how to properly operate the vehicles and to prevent roll-overs. We from the JAG office just spent an hour and a half to drive for fun on a large gravel field. They did set up some pylons and had us weave through them. These MRAPs are huge, and the field of vision is poor, so precise driving is impossible, but I was able to do the obstacle course without knocking over any pylons. Here are some pictures of me with an RG-33 MRAP:

driving-an-mrap

brian-and-mrap

 

At the start of the day, I really wasn’t looking forward to going to the training. But by the end, I had to admit it had been a lot of fun to learn many amazing facts about the MRAP and its ability to protect soldiers, and even getting a chance to drive one. It is a better vehicle in every way than the Humvee, faster and more responsive, and much better protected than the death-trap of a Humvee. The only bad thing is that your field of vision is poor. So when I ride my bike around Balad, I’ll be sure to steer extra clear of the MRAP. But I’m grateful for the great cost and work done on the MRAP program to protect soldiers who go out on missions.

The Ugandan Guards

 The security force used for most of the routine, boring security jobs on base is the Ugandan Guards. These are contract employees from Uganda. They are young folks who all formerly served in the Ugandan Army at some point. In order to make more money, they sign up to do security work for a contractor, and they come here to Iraq. The average pay is about $600 to $1,000 a month, which is a very good income considering the alternatives in employment in Africa. When it was more dangerous in Iraq, they were paid more, nearly double their current pay. They are not mercenaries, and are never sent out on missions: That is the job for US Military personnel.

 

So you will see Ugandan Guards at the entrance to every DFAC (dining facility), the PX’s (shopping), the rec centers and gyms, and anyplace else where there is likely to be a gathering of personnel. They also sit in the towers that line the perimeter of the base, keeping watch at all hours. They are easy to notice in their tan uniforms. Here is a picture of two guys guarding the front entrance to the big DFAC #1:

guards-at-dfac1

The Ugandans are very friendly people. I’ve come to know several and we greet each other by name and chat. They are always ready with a greeting when you pass them at a guard post. They speak English quite well, and it’s always interesting to talk with a guard and find out what sort of plans he or she has in life. The Ugandans are also interested about life in America. Here is my friend Kelvin. He and I go have dinner once in a while, then visit the rec center to play a game:

me-and-kelvin

 

The Ugandans are allowed to use the internet at the East Side rec center, and you’ll always see dozens here, keeping in touch with home:

ugandans-on-internet

Or playing pool:

playing-pool

One interesting thing is that many Ugandan Guards are Christian. You will often see them in church or in Bible studies, right alongside us. You never see the other TCN’s, like the Nepali’s, at such gatherings. Here in Balad they have several gospel services, primarily this is for the black soldiers (of course anyone else is welcome). The Ugandans attend this service often, which is interesting because Ugandan Christians have very little in common with African-American Baptist Gospel service. But they all have a good time together, and I’ve even seen a Ugandan group do song and dance performances at these services, which is always very well received.

 

The Ugandan Guards are cool. They are the only other people besides US Military who carry weapons here on base, and for that reason I feel affinity towards them. And they will use those weapons to fight if need be. There have been no base incursions for years, anywhere in Iraq, but the Ugandans will, and have, put their military training and weapons to good use when needed. So it’s good to know that they are on our side, protecting us. I’m glad to have friends here in Iraq among the Ugandan Guards.