Nature Part II

This is a short post, but I wanted to display two other photos I took recently. First are my friends the birds. These guys wait for me every morning, and they always ask for a handout.  Luckily, someone else has started putting out rice for them to eat over in the H-6 housing area.  Here is a good photo I took of some of my avian neighbors:

 Birds on Wire

Every evening, the birds settle down to sleep in the trees.  They especially like the palm trees here.  But before they go to bed, they always throw a huge party.  The taller trees host dozens, perhaps hundreds of birds who chirp like crazy and chase each other around with gusto from about 6PM to 7PM.  It’s amazing to hear these gatherings of birds from a hundred yards away in all the tall trees.   Here is a video I took of a bird party in a palm tree at 6:30PM, right outside of DFAC #3:

BIRD VIDEO

The next is one of the lizards that lives right outside my office. They have hardly any color, and look almost translucent. These clear lizards only come out at night. Some are tiny, not much bigger than an inch, and they scurry around in the night. One actually found his way into my office yesterday morning.  I was able to get close to this guy, and take a photo. He’s a larger clear lizard, at about 6 inches in length:

 Clear Lizard

If you remember the other lizard from my early post about nature, he looked a lot darker, and seemed to have more personality. He lives right underneath my old CHU. I started seeing him almost every day, actually. I even gave him a name, “Sal” because I thought that was a good name for a lizard (get it?). I think these lizards eat ants and other small bugs. Sal Lizard must have had a feast, because there were quite a few black ants living under my CHU as I found out one day when I dropped some sweet bread by my doorway.

 One thing I don’t like here at JBB are the Sand Flies.  These are about 1/3 the size of a mosquito, and I’ve never actually seen one.  But I’ve certainly felt them.  Right now I have 15-20 bites all over my arms and legs.  I’ve started spraying pesticide in the new trailer where I live behind my office, but that seems to have little effect.  The sand flies are persistent, and they leave itchy bites which are quite troublesome.   They must find me to be delicious.  At any rate, today I’m going to try to find some better ways to ward them off.

It’s rare to see larger animals than what I’ve shown above.  I’ve heard wild dogs and cats get on base sometimes, but never seen one.  I saw a jack rabbit the other day, running across the H-6 housing area. He was too fast, though, and I couldn’t get take a photo quickly enough…..

Advertisements

Clearing my CHU

My unit is preparing to leave Iraq. Some of our replacements have already begun to arrive. This week was significant, because we turned in a great deal of equipment. Some was permanently turned in. Some was turned in to be shipped back to California. I’ve been able to turn in three large bags worth of stuff. Most of it was never used, and remained in the plastic wrap in which I got it a year ago (e.g., winter parka and other cold-weather gear, and much other useless stuff).

 So it’s good to lighten my load a bit. I’m now down to stuff that I’ll either leave in Iraq (e.g. television & DVD player, mops & brooms, floor rugs), and two bags and a carry-on that I’ll be carrying with me on the flight home.

Yesterday was a big day, because I had to clear my CHU (containerized housing unit). Yesterday morning, I removed pretty much everything from my CHU that belonged to me, except for the desk and chair. Here’s what my CHU looked like before. I posted a welcome sign on the door, drawn by my daughter Judy:

Welcome to my CHU

 My bed looked like this:

 Bed

Another inside view:

Door

My CHU was about a 12 foot square room. Not too bad, over all. I’m not sure if this will take, but here’s a movie of my CHU:

Brian’s CHU

So after finishing final cleaning and removal of everything, I waited around for nearly two hours yesterday afternoon. Finally some extremely thin woman from Macedonia came, along with a Nepalese guy (both KBR contractors). They looked around. They made me throw out the trash bag in the trash can, and a stick that was in the window ledge. They made me sign a piece of paper saying that I was abandoning my desk and chair (which I was, I’d been unable to give these away even for free). They took my key, and then they cleared me.

 That was how I gave up the place where I’ve been living since late November 2008. I don’t really miss it much. I’m now living in a trailer behind my office, which actually is more convenient, because it is 30 feet away from my office.  I’m starting to get rid of stuff in earnest, so I’ll be able to come home within my limit of two bags and a carry-on.  I’m lucky to have the legal office trailer to live in by myself!  Everyone else is forced to live in a tent, with 8-12 people per tent and no privacy.

 The end of the deployment is near. I’m starting to pass off duties to other people here at the office. I’m not sure when we will leave, and unfortunately I’m not allowed to give out dates and times of our departure. I don’t have that information anyway, so it’s not hard for me keep that secret.

The Cadillac Ranch

The aim of this blog is to show what life is like here in Joint Base Balad, Iraq. I’m grateful for all the folks who have written me and told me that they found this blog useful in that regard. Last week, a mother of an airman here wrote me and mentioned that she found this blog useful so that she could relate to life for her son who is also serving here at JBB.

 To that end, this is a subject that everyone on JBB must deal with in some way or another every single day. The term “Cadillac” has an unclear origin, but appears to refer to the trailers used for showers and toilets. I base this conclusion off of the “Attack Response Procedures Joint Base Balad, Iraq” (very interesting reading, with photos too! ATTACHED HERE:  Attack Response Procedures), which refers to “Taking a shower in Cadillac” and “Relieving yourself in a Cadillac.”   The term is not widely used, and I usually refer to these as either the shower trailer or restroom trailer. Here is what these look like at night time:

 Cadilac

The above picture is my favorite shower trailer. It’s not the best quality shower, as the water tends to collect and not drain properly. But it is usually fairly empty, so one doesn’t have to compete with a crowd in this particular trailer. Here’s what it looks like inside this shower Cadillac:

 Inside shower

There are 6 shower stalls in this trailer. Larger trailers can have 12 or more. Obviously, they have separate trailers for men and women. There is also an equal number of trailers, which is somewhat unfair because men outnumber women by a ration of 5-1.

 My favorite shower stall is this one (on the right):

 My favorite shower stall

I like it because the shower head is not broken, and it does not collect too much water in the basin. I wear thick shower shoes to and from the trailer. A friend of mine said that he’d rather eat something off the floor of a highway rest stop than take a shower without shower shoes here. In the past, there have been some soldiers who have gotten electrocuted in these while taking a shower, due to faulty wiring. It’s a terrible tragedy for someone to die in Iraq for such a preventable reason. An electrocution has not happened for a long time, most likely as a result of a determined effort to get licensed electricians out here to regularly inspect facilities in Iraq. In fact, every month or two, someone comes into my CHU (containerized housing unit) and checks all electrical plugs and wirings, so I’m sure the wiring in these Cadillac’s is also regularly inspected.

The toilet Cadillac is a similar idea. Instead of showers, they have toilet stalls lined up with sinks in the common area. Here is what it looks like inside one of these:

 Toilet Trailer

 Toilet

There are trailers like this in the middle of every housing area on post. There is a crew of Nepalese workers who clean these Cadillac’s all day long. I’d imagine it is a lot of monotonous, unpleasant work to be a janitor doing that job, without ever having a day off. These guys get paid very little, perhaps $500 a month at most, but apparently that is much more than they’d make back in Nepal. Also, the working conditions here are probably safer.

Anyway, that is the story of the Cadillac here at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. It’s not too bad, really, and I’ve become used to walking 75 yards from my housing unit to the trailers. It’s really much better than Kuwait, where there is an odd chemical smell in these trailers. When I get home next month, one thing I am truly looking forward to is to be able to get out of bed, and use the toilet or shower without wearing shoes and walking for two minutes.

Paying Claims

I have three legal jobs.  First is to provide legal assistance to military folks with any personal legal problem they might have. Most often, this is divorce or family law related, but it could include anything else such as debt problems, landlord-tenant law, military administrative matters, and a number of other legal fields. Second is the part-time military magistrate responsible for giving search authorizations or confinement orders. Third is to pay claims for damages caused by the US Government.

 My claims job brings me into contact with the local Iraqis a few times every month. Twice every month I go out to the East Gate Entry Control Point (ECP), which is the only place at which Iraqi’s can walk onto the base. Most Iraqis come to work, we have several hundred who do various jobs on the base. The ECP is very tightly guarded and controlled, and there is no way anyone could bring a weapon onto the base in this area. Several heavily armed Air Force Security Force personnel stand watch, along with Ugandan guards and other security forces. So the East Gate is probably the safest place on this base.

 I handle claims for anything that the US government has done to cause damage to the local Iraqis. This could be things like a cow being hit by a US convoy, a dog or car being shot by US forces, or any other acts causing damages. The most common type of issue I deal with is land use by the US of small farms around the base.

 There is always a translator to help me talk with the Iraqis. I’ve learned a little bit of Arabic, with the Iraqi local color. For example, “Shlonak Eyom” means “How are you?” to which you can respond “Zen” for “fine.” Shuku Mucku means thank you. And of course, you greet people by saying “Salam Alekum,” and say goodbye by saying “Ma Salaama” (go in peace). The Iraqis around the base all know who I am, and refer to me at the nice major who pays claims. Here is a meeting I had with a group of local farmers:

 Claimants

The last thing they’d want is to hurt me, because I pay actual money to local Iraqis.  Here is a local guy getting a wad of cash, which I photographed to prove that we did pay him:

 Payment

The Iraqis here are mostly rural folks. The area around here is about half Sunni, half Shia, but everyone gets along fine. It’s quite safe out here, especially around the base. You never hear about fighting or attacks anywhere near JBB. I also get to meet local bigwigs once in a while, like this sheik-looking fellow:

 Looking Sheik 

I’ve learned quite a bit about local Iraqi culture. For example, around here, it is not unusual for a man to have four wives, if he can afford it. I don’t see the point of that. Most folks wear traditional clothing, especially the older people. In Baghdad, the people are much more cosmopolitan, and wear Western clothing, and usually confine themselves to marrying one wife.  In the photos, above, note how the younger guys are wearing jeans and American style clothes, while the older guys are wearing his robes and khafiya head-dress.  

One might say that Balad is a redneck, backwater area of Iraq.  There are other parts that are even more so, of course.  Balad is just a normal, mostly agricultural area.

My Birthday

My birthday is Aug. 9, and it was nothing special.  Aug. 9 is a Sunday, so it’s my day off.  I did the normal things that I do, namely call my family, do some exercise, read or watch movies in my room in the afternoon, then go to church.  I also made a trip to the pool near sunset, which was a great idea because I avoided the blazing sunshine of the day.   Yesterday evening, they had the Spin Doctors playing a concert at the theater, so I went to that.  You might remember them as the one-hit-wonder from the 90’s with that song “Little Miss, little miss, little miss Can’t Be Wrong.”  It was a pretty good show, although it was sparsely attended for some reason.  Some concerts pack the theater, this one had a small but enthusiastic crowd.  The band played its blues rock for about an hour and a half, and we appreciated the efforts of the group.

Here’s the flyer from the concert:  Spin Doctors Flyer

Only one person here remembered my birthday, Chief Lightfoot the legal administrator at my office.  That was fine.  I don’t have any close friends here any more, now that my friend CPT Bird is gone.  With only 40 days left in Iraq, I’m not inclined to start making new friends.

The bad news is that my daughter Judy had stomach flu.  We had to take her to St. John’s PV hospital in Camarillo, where she was then transferred by ambulance to St. John’s Oxnard, and had to spend the night.  Judy did not like this experience at all, and I was distressed to hear her crying when I phoned in the evening.  Judy got better and was released to go back home later the next day.  The next day,  I spoke with Judy and she sang “Happy Birthday” for me on the phone, which I greatly enjoyed!

Anyway, it’s now mid-August in Iraq.  It’s not that bad.  It does get hot during the day, up to 115 normally during the day, and the constant dust is irritating.  But the rumors of Iraqi summer are not true.  People said that you’d take a shower at night, and immediately be covered with sweat afterwards (not true, night is fairly pleasant and cool, actually), and things like when you pour out a bottle of water, it evaporates before it hits the ground (an obvious exaggeration, but almost true, water evaporates very quickly here, and five minutes after pouring out water it’s mostly gone).  The food is good, and I spend most of my time in one air conditioned environment or another.  I feel sorry for the poor guys who have to work outside, or go on patrols outside the base. 

Anyway, that was my birthday in Iraq.

The New DFAC #2

The big news for JBB this past week was the opening of the new Dining Facility #2. DFAC #2 is right next to the H-6 housing area where I live, so I go there every morning for breakfast. The old #2 was a comfortable, homey place, with very good food and a nice covered outdoor patio where many could eat outside. I liked it because it had grilled chicken that could be used to make a super sandwich for lunch. The old #2 would be quite crowded at lunch and dinner, however, as it was a much smaller facility. My final memory of the old DFAC #2 is that while I was eating lunch, there was an incoming fire alert, and everyone in the building had to get down on the ground. Of course, nothing happened, and we all got up after a few minutes. This is the only time I’ve seen people do this during a meal during my entire 9 months here at JBB.

 The NEW DFAC #2 opened next to the old one. The old one is now closed, and sitting empty. The new #2 is about 250 yards further away from my housing area, and so it’s a bit further of a walk to get there. It opened for the midnight meal on the night of July 31-Aug. 1. I never go to the midnight meal here on JBB (Most night workers do). But for this great event, I made an exception and stayed out very late to see the grand opening and be in the first group of people to eat at the new DFAC #2!!

 There was a line of people waiting in the night for the grand opening:

 Waiting to Enter

New DFAC #2 is one of the largest buildings on JBB. They finished construction before I even arrived, about 9 months ago, but because of endless technical problems, they did not open it until July 31, 2009. Even now it is somewhat limited in its use.

 Anyway, here are my pictures from the inside of the new DFAC #2. There are many new cooks:

 Cooks

A nice salad bar:

 Salad Bar

The TV’s are much nicer than the old DFAC #2, and placed on a dozen spots along the walls:

 TV on Wall DFAC 2

And of course the dessert bar to make sure you gain a lot of weight:

 Dessert Bar

It’s hard to get a real feel for this from these photos, but DFAC #2 conveys a great sense of wasted space. It is a facility that is much bigger than it needs to be, and there are lots of unused areas. The right half of the building is completely empty, and unused. Large areas on the dining floor are vacant. It seems like a poorly thought-out building, and the spatial disharmony leads to a feeling of unease in this place. Sort of a bad fung-shui, you might say.

 When they closed the old DFAC #2, they used another contractor to operate the new DFAC #2, so many of the old workers have been sent home. Now they have a new crew of Nepalese workers. The new folks don’t seem to know how to do their jobs very well. The serving lines are painfully slow, the quality of the food is MUCH worse, and people are generally displeased with the new DFAC #2 because of the steep decline in the quality of food and service. My biggest complaint is that they plan on closing DFAC #3 (my favorite place for lunch and dinner) at the end of August, which will force many people to travel long distances to come to the new DFAC #2 or over to DFAC #1. This seems highly impractical, and the whole idea strikes me as bad. But having spent tens of millions of dollars on the new DFAC #2, I guess the military has to proceed with its plans.

 Anyway, enough on this new dining facility. One other interesting thing that happened was that they had a “Christmas in July” 5K fun run a few weeks ago. It was interesting to be hot in the 80 degree weather at 5AM, and to see Christmas trees, and hear the organizers play Christmas music, like “Jingle Bells.” They even had Christmas presents to hand out in stockings to many people. I finally got my T-shirt from this event today, and here is what it looks like:

 Xmas in July

The military probably spends several hundred thousand dollars on these shirts every year, just to commemmorate fun runs.  I treasure each T-shirt I get while in Iraq. These will be a nice memento from my time here.

Nature on Joint Base Balad

JBB is not a beautiful place. It is completely flat, and lies a mile west of the Tigris river. JBB mostly consists of the gigantic airfield, large equipment and supply storage yards and warehouses, and a great many buildings and the gravel surfaced areas outside the buildings. T-walls are everywhere, and the most common color is dust-brown. The brown color is caused by the plentiful dust that gets blown everywhere. I just read a very interesting story regarding the dust, which is here:

 http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-iraq-dust30-2009jul30,0,3137832.story

 It hasn’t rained here for many months, and a few minutes of rain would be most welcome just to reduce the dust problem. It is very hot here, but actually I am getting used to the heat. 110 degrees (43 C) during the day is normal, but in the early morning it is only perhaps 80 (27 C) and not humid, so it isn’t that bad. It’s a bit worse than Oklahoma or Texas, but the most annoying part of the weather is the dust.

 There are few things of natural beauty here, so some try to create it. Here is an enterprising CHU-owner who decided to plant a garden in his front yard:

 JBB Garden 1

Garden 2

These photos were taken in May 2009. I go by this garden every day on my way home from breakfast. Apparently the owner moved away, because all the plants have died, and last week they were all cut down by the plant control workers. I tried to keep it going, but couldn’t devote the time needed to water all these plants.

There is some small wildlife on JBB. Every night when I walk to the restroom trailers, I see dozens of lizards. Here is a small one that I photographed right outside the door to my CHU:

 Lizzard

There are also a great many birds on this base. I like to throw a cookie or piece of bread to them after lunch. Here is a group of birds benefiting from my generosity:

 Birds 

We also have a great many bats. These come out at night and eat the pesky bugs, so I consider the bats to be my friends. They live in the roofs of many of the older buildings on post, and even inside the movie theater! During several recent movies, I’ve seen a bat or two flying across the movie screen.

 Balad Bats

The Iraqi switch grass and the native trees survive just fine in the hot, dry climate. That makes sense. These native plants have been here forever, while the English Garden shown above was destined to die out very quickly without getting lots of water and shade, and plenty of constant care. One of my favorite parts of the base is the T-walls outside the H-6 Recreation Center. I walk past this every day, and am always glad to see this patch of grass living amid the sterile concrete and gravel environment of Joint Base Balad:

Grass in T Walls