Signs of the Times

There are many signs all over this base. They serve very little purpose, and are mostly ignored.  Every street has a name, and every building has a number, but these road signs are routinely ignored because they are just not that useful. It is much easier to say “I’m in the blue building across from the Hospital,” “Go to the intersection near Provider Chapel and look for the castle building,” or “the building near DFAC (Dining Facility) #3.” Nobody would say “I’m in Building 7235 on Pennsylvania Avenue (where I work).” It’s amazing that anyone can find anything, given how useless the road signs are here. And for security reasons, the military doesn’t publish good maps. That might show the bad guys where to shoot rockets.

 So the road signs don’t really irritate me, because they just get ignored anyway. There is one sign that amuses many, see below and you will figure out why:

 David Letterman Loop

David Letterman Loop is in a remote part of the base, on the West Side, close to the 15-foot high fence that is the boundary of Joint Base Balad.

 There are other signs that are just weird. Here is one example outside the Victory Base DFAC (far left):

 Random AntiTerrorism

The question I asked is: “What is random, the terrorism, or the measures?”

 The weirdest sign on JBB is this one, it stands alone in a field of gravel close to the Mosque that is by the movie theater:

 Complacency Kills 

Here is a picture of some signs outside DFAC #1 (with a Ugandan guard keeping watch). Note the great number of rules that must be obeyed to get in to eat. Two of them include you MUST NOT have a bag of any kind (so that you can’t carry a bomb into the DFAC), and you MUST carry a weapon in order to get in. If you try to enter without a weapon, you are kicked out!! That happened to me once while trying to get in to eat after going for a run…

DFAC 1

 DFAC Rules

Here is a nice sign. Catfish Air is the Army Blackhawk helicopter terminal, where you can catch a flight to many parts of Iraq on a chopper:

 Catfish Air

At my office, there are a few signs that are interesting. First is the introduction to the office, where we have this cardboard cut-out figure to greet people:

 LA office directions

The bathrooms on this base have two signs that are a little unusual. The first is this one which is at the bathroom at my office:

 TP Sign

I think the purpose of this sign is to encourage people to push down on the toilet lever, so as to allow the water tank to fill up and avoid having the toilet run continuously. We have a strange “pull-up” flusher on most toilets on the base (see below). 

The second sign is this:

 MWR East stall

MWR East sign

The purpose is obvious. Apparently a lot of the TCN’s (third country nationals) from places like India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, would actually stand on the toilets. In their countries, a sit-down toilet is very rare, and most are used to squatters where you stand over the toilet, so the sign was necessary to prevent people from standing on the sit-down toilets.

 There are thousands of other signs on this base, and this story gives you just a small taste of what we have here.

The Airfield

Joint Base Balad is a large military airfield. Saddam Hussein’s former Iraqi government built the air base in the 1970’s, and named it Al-Bakr Air Base. In fact, the village to the East of the base, on the banks of the Tigris River, is still called “Bakr Village” to this day. Years ago, it is where most of the Iraqi airmen and their families used to live.

When Saddam’s Baathist government built the base 30 years ago, there were perhaps 3,000 people living in and around the base. The old Iraqi-built structures are still quite common, and used mostly as offices for the various American units now working here.  You can still see the Baath party symbok (8-pointed star) on many old buildings.  Now, there are over 30,000 military and civilian personnel on this base, and consequently the majority of buildings on this base are relatively new. For example, there are thousands of CHU’s (containerized housing units) and adjoining bathroom trailers all of which were built in the past 6 years since the invasion of Iraq.

 The obvious legacy of the old Iraqi base is the airfield. The Balad has a very large airfield with millions of square feet of concrete. It’s been extensively renovated since the invasion, and is now the busiest military airfield in the world, and second busiest airport of any kind in the world. The military spends millions of dollars, mostly through KBR as a contractor, to maintain this airfield. Enormous amounts of supplies come in through the cargo aircraft on this airfield

 One of the enduring legacies of the Saddam era is the hardened concrete aircraft bunkers. They look like this:

 Hardened bunker w F16s

Many of the new air hangars are really glorified tents, with steel structures and very sturdy canvas.  There are also dozens of weird concrete pyramids (I call them Ziggurats) all over the base, apparently they were used to store fuel or ammunition in the past. Right now they stand alone, and unused, in random spots in the base:

 Ziggurat

This is a small side-airfield housing several smaller planes, with the “Thunderdome” in the background:

 Thunderdome

The Thunderdome apparently got its name because a few years ago, an American colonel was giving a talk to his unit in this large aircraft hangar. As he was speaking to this gathering of people, an incoming rocket hit the building, went through the roof, and landed next to him, but failed to explode. It still caused a thunderous sound, even without exploding. The event was so amazing that people began calling this hangar the Thunderdome, and the name has stuck. Now it’s a large area used to work on aircraft.

 On the East Side of JBB, we have mostly fixed wing aircraft, but there are also several places where you can see the un-manned drones: the Predator, and also the Sky Warrior.  Here’s a picture from the internet of the Predator:

 Predator Drone

On the West Side of JBB, the aircraft are mostly helicopters of various types. Of course, the base hospital on the East Side (close to where I live) has a helipad which often sees helicopters flying in and out of the area. These medivac helicopter flights buzz a hundred yards over my CHU on a constant basis.

 Living within sight of this airfield has its drawbacks. The F-16’s tend to be extremely loud. Blackhawk helicopters fly overhead at my housing area very often, at all hours of the day and night. I’ve actually gotten used to the noise, and am rarely awakened by the sounds of aircraft. It’s a bit odd to be sitting in my office, and have 30-60 seconds where I can barely talk with clients because of the roar of some airplane taking off. And sometimes they just test the jet engines on the large military transports. Believe me, that is loud.

 Being at JBB, we see aircraft all the time. Here is a picture I took of a transport plane taking off. I snapped this picture while driving in a remote part of the West Side of the base, along Victory Loop (the main road that circles the base):

 Takeoff

 

Working Out at the Gym

Joint Base Balad, Iraq, has many gyms. There are three large facilities with about 7,000 or 8,000 square feet each (the H-6 gym inside the Air Force gated community, East Side Gym, and West Side Gym). In addition to these large gyms, there are several smaller gyms here and there. For example, there is a small gym inside of a tent at both the Fire Department and ESC (Sustainment Command) headquarters. There are likely a dozen other little gyms all over the place.

 When you work out, you can even watch one of the eight plasma TV’s that they have set up. The scene looks like this (this was back in Winter, when they had Xmas snowflakes hung up):

 1 Gym and TVs

I am lucky enough to live in the H-6 gated community (it’s about 65% Air Force, 35% Army). My morning routine consists of a stop at the gym to exercise pretty much every single day. It’s a nice gym. Here is what it looked like back in February while some contractors were building a rocket/mortar shield over it. Note the basketball court out front:

 H6 Gym with Bomb Shelter

Here’s what it looks like now that construction is finished:

 H6 Gym

They have a large variety of things to do. The exercise machines consist of treadmills, stair-steppers, rowing machines, and my favorite the elliptical. In the mornings, it can become quite crowded, and around 7:30AM, it may be hard to find a machine to use! Some people spend so much time here that they become known as ‘gym rats.’ They have a lot of weights, and exercise equipment of virtually anything you can think of. Here is a view of the weight room:

 Weight Room

There is one weird thing. In a corridor linking two gym buildings, they have put up blue paper and fish on the wall, so it seems like you are under the sea. I walk through this every day, and think it’s a nice touch:

Under the Sea

 The East Side gym has a racquetball court and even a climbing wall! I can’t list everything that they have going on, but a partial description of what they have includes a yoga class twice a week, boxing classes, a “P90X” exercise class that meets quite often, abdomen exercise classes, and several others. Here is the bulletin board in the gym listing some of the stuff that is going on:

H6 Bulletin Board

I recently took a PT (physical fitness) Test and scored 272 out of 300, which is a career high for me. So if you want to get fit, Iraq can be a great place to work out!

Policies

Here is something that might be interesting to an outside observer. On Joint Base Balad, and all through Iraq, there are all sorts of rules, regulations, and policies that apply to US personnel. There is much discussion in the news of things like the agreements between the Government of Iraq and US Forces, such as the withdrawal of forces from cities which happened in June. But less noticed are the rules that are circulated by email several times every week to us here in Iraq.

 Here is a document entitled “General Rules For Trailers on JBB”. Pretty much everyone lives in trailers here on JBB, although some live in tents temporarily. Reading this list of rules, one can only imagine the trouble that has happened after violations:

 General Rules For Trailers on JBB

Another one that is the subject of constant debate is the policy governing the wear of uniforms. Here it is:

 MNF-I Uniform Policy -May 2009

We are always in uniform here, military are not allowed to go around in civilian clothes unless there is some special reason to do so. I’ve spent every single day of my life here wearing my uniform (ACU’s (Army Combat Uniform, the normal duty uniform) or PT’s (physical training)), which is nice because I don’t have to think about which tie to wear with which shirt like I do back home. But there are some strange rules too. My pet peeve is the boonie hat. It’s a large, floppy hat that provides great sun protection.  This is important, as the blazing sunshine can burn you quickly, and the patrol hat does not provide adequate protection.  You are not allowed to have your name on the boonie hat, which is different from the regular patrol hat. You may have your rank on the boonie hat. Apparently some unit came in with hundreds of guys all having their names on their boonie hats, and this caused a great commotion with the end result being that someone high up ordered everyone to take off their sewn-on name tapes, resulting in the waste of hundreds of dollars of the soldiers’ money. The boonie hat is specifically addressed in this policy memo. In case you can’t picture it, here’s me in a boonie hat:

 Boonie Hat

Another interesting dispute is whether women can wear one or two-piece swimsuits. After a huge dispute, involving several high-ranking people, the rule finally came out that Army women must wear one-piece swimsuits, Air Force can wear conservative two-piece suits. Not sure what the Navy or Marine Corps women, or civilians, can wear. Last I checked, there was a sign at the pool threatening punishment for any woman wearing a two-piece, which I understand has since been taken down.

 Finally, here is a strange policy. Civilians employed directly by the US government used to wear uniforms. They had special name tapes, for example “DA Civilian” in the place where it says “US Army” and a “US” instead of rank. Sometimes they’d wear old DCU’s (desert combat uniform) I had no problem with this, but apparently someone else did:

 MNF-I Uniform Memo for civilian employees

Some policies make great sense. For example, no wearing headphones outside, because you might not hear a vehicle approaching you, or a warning. The “no name tape on boonie hat” policy, on the other hand, is one that, to quote Forrest Gump, “just don’t make no sense.”

JBB Celebrates 4th of July

Today is the 4th of July! There are a few special things going on to celebrate.

 We had the 4th of July fun run.  Here’s the start of the race:

4th of July Running

 That was yesterday (Friday, the 3rd). Not sure why they moved the date for the run, but luckily they did so because the weather was better yesterday than it is today.  The run started at 5AM, which was great because the was somewhat clear and not too dusty or hot. Here is a picture of my group after the fun run at Holt Stadium, having gotten our commemorative t-shirt:

 Fun Run 3 Jul 09

The weather turned much worse over the next 24 hours. Over most of this week, we’ve had terrible dust storms. These are the worst I’ve ever seen during my time in Iraq, and people say it’s worse now than it has been in previous years. They were supposed to have a boat race at the outdoor pool today, but I believe that was canceled (boats were to be made of empty plastic water bottles duct-taped together). Nobody wants to spend time outside due to the choking dust. Here is the view outside my office, with some tracked vehicle rolling by:

Duststorm2

 Today, the weather looks OTHER-WORLDLY.  It should be 120 and sunny, but instead the sky looks like Mars.  Walk outside, and here is what you see:

 Duststorm 4th of July

 

Some joker even decided to write in the dust on the deck outside:

 

Happy 4th Dust

They have special patriotic decorations at the Dining Facilities. This is somewhat ironic because 95% of the DFAC workers are Indian or Nepali citizens. But the gesture is nice. Here is a picture of my favorite DFAC #3 at dinner time today:

  IMG_3942

The duststorm has really affected things on base. Nobody wants to go outside, and everything is caked with dust and dirt. When walking around, I wear clear glasses and a dust mask, both of which get rather dirty just on my short bike rides. In fact, my eye lashes turn dusty white after any extended time outside. I guess eye lashes serve a purpose in keeping some dust out of my eyes. But people still get red, itchy eyes and shortness of breath from the extreme dust. The one good thing I’ll say about the dust is that it keeps the temperatures down somewhat here.

 And like I said at New Year’s: I hope that there are NO fireworks here tonight!!!   There have already been a few indirect fire attacks today (mortars & rockets shot towards the base).  I’m attaching a document that was emailed to me with some jokes about Joint Base Balad, I think it’s a few years old because it is a bit out of date. Some are funny, but the context will be lost on many readers.

JBB TOP 50

Sleepless in Salah-ad-Din

I’m back in Balad, Iraq again. “Salah-ad-Din” is the name of the province where we are. Kind of like California is the state, and Camarillo is the city; so it is with Salah-ad-Din being the Iraqi province and Balad being the city close to our base. The capital city of this province is Tikrit, up north. About 98% of the Americans on this base have no idea the name of the province we are in.

 My flight from Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait was on Friday, June 26.  The flight left a few hours after midnight. Actually, this was a good time to travel, because in the middle of the night it is not so hot. It is quite unpleasant mid-day in Kuwait, with temperatures well over 100 and humidity high, and wearing my body armor, helmet, and carrying my luggage.  I got back to my room around 4Am on Friday last week.

 Our group was lucky, because we got to fly on a nice, big C-17 cargo plane. These planes are about 4 stories high, and look like this:

 C17 getting helicopter

 (note the size of the trucks on the left, and the fact that they are loading a full Blackhawk helicopter onto this C-17!!  Yes it is 4 stories high at the tail!).

The flight was fast, it only took about an hour to reach Joint Base Balad (JBB) from Kuwait, whereas the C-130 prop plane that I took on my trip out lasted a bit over two hours.

 It’s kind of good to be back in Iraq. I get to sleep in my own bed, and living conditions are better than they are in Kuwait. Also, I’m back at work, and that is positive. I enjoy doing work at my office as opposed to sitting around in a tent in Kuwait. I would like to see through my deployment, and finish strong. Right now, I have less than 90 days left on the deployment, so it won’t be that much longer until I can return to California forever!

 There are two problems. First, the weather is furiously hot. Look at this weather forecast over the next few days:

 weather use this one

Today’s weather is “blowing dust.” And I’ve never seen a forecast using the terms “blazing sunshine” and “very hot with sizzling sunshine.” My personal favorite is “smoke,” the smell of which was very noticeable my first day back. The past several days has seen a windy duststorm, which has coated everything with dust. In fact, when I returned from leave after having been gone for about 20 days, everything in my room was covered with a thick layer of dust.

 But the overall weather picture is one of extreme heat. Las Vegas has nothing on Iraq:  it is much hotter here. Normal temperatures are well over 100F, and it does get to 120F most days (that is 50 C for my international readers!!). Even at night it is hot and at least in the 90’s. In the morning, at 5AM, it is bearable at 80F and sunny, but this does not last long. The heat is oppressive, and it will be like this for the rest of my deployment.  I end up sweaty after spending any more than 5 minutes outside. Even the Iraqis avoid going out to work during the daytime now. This is not the time to take a vacation in Iraq!

 The second problem is that after returning to Iraq, I’ve been very jet-lagged. I’ve been waking up every night around 1AM, and then staying awake for 2-3 hours. Today I woke up at 1:30 and haven’t been able to get back to sleep at all, which will be a problem later today.  A website offered advice on jetlag saying it takes about a day to recover for each time zone you cross. This sounds about right, as I crossed 10 time zones, and am still not quite recovered after a week. Hence the title of this post.