At Fort Bliss (it was better in Iraq)

We just finished our time at Fort Bliss. But I wanted to put up a post discussing only Fort Bliss, so that you the reader will have a basic understanding of what de-mobilizing is like.

Every reserve unit has a “Mob Station” from which it mobilizes and de-mobilizes.  The 304th Sustainment Brigade’s was Fort Bliss, which is in El Paso, Texas. 

As discussed in the last post, we had a very long trip from Kuwait to Texas ona chartered airplane.  When our airplane arrived at about 6AM, we were all very tired and beat.  The first thing they did was they made us all line up in a hanger-like building on Biggs Field, the Fort Bliss runway.  We then turned in our weapons.  Here is a photo of me a few minutes after our arrival, parting with my old friend for the last time:

SGM Long photo at Ft Bliss arrival

After that, they gave us a TB test shot, and let everyone eat a little breakfast.  The eggs were runny, the potatoes rubbery, and the french toast was burnt to a crisp.   We were then taken to our barracks, where we were to spend the next few days.  The barracks were freezing cold, and dead cockroaches littered the floors.  There was nothing to do, and we were stranded in the middle of this inhospitable military base.  This was the first time I remarked that dining and living conditions were better in Iraq.

We were all quite exhausted, and so the first day there was nothing on the agenda.  I ended up sleeping from 10AM to 5PM, and then going back to sleep at 10PM again.   I wasn’t that badly jet-lagged, and woke up around 4AM the next morning.  They say that it is easier to travel from East to West, and this is true, judging by how severely jet-lagged I was the last time I flew from the US to Iraq. On that occassion I had a terrible time with sleepless nights for about 10 days.

Anyway, the days after our initial rest-day were spent at the SRP site (Soldier Readiness Processing).  We were doing our out-processing and de-mobilizing.  Basically this entails sitting through 4 hours of briefings, and then making sure our finances are correct, calculating final pay and our military separation date (as well as issuing DD 214’s), being medically and dentally checked, and turning in body armor.  Here is a view of the SRP site, which is in a big circus-style tent on Fort Bliss:

Bliss SRP site

Note the lovely mountains in the background.  I think El Paso is a nice place.

Soldiers spent lots of time sitting in lines, waiting for their out-processing:

De Mob Processing

Occasionally someone would come out and shout at us for some various infraction.  By the end of this, I was becoming increasingly disgusted at the way the permanant party staff talked down to everyone, and treated us like cattle. But the process was over after a couple of days.  Nobody got into trouble, even though alcohol was available at shops all over the base. 

We had a farewell ceremony at the El Paso VFW Post 812, which is located in a very scenic spot on top of the mountain overlooking El Paso.  About half the unit left the next day on flights to their individual homes.  These were the cross-levels, people who were assigned to the unit only for the duration of the deployment.  The permanent 304th SB folks stayed on.

Very early on Sunday morning, we went back to the welcome site next to the airfield.  It’s a huge structure and it looks like this:

Bliss Receiving site

This is the same facility that we flew out of at the start  of our tour last year.  We had a chartered flight by Southwest Airlines, and I have to say, this was a real pleasure.   The Southwest crew was very friendly, and the flight went perfectly well. 

SW charter home

The Road Home

Right now I am at Fort Bliss, Texas.   When you leave Iraq, you don’t just hop on a plane and go straight home.  You must follow a de-mobilization process, which is similar to (but much shorter than) the mobilization that you go through before getting to Iraq. The basic way to demobilize is to fly from Iraq to Ali Al Salem (AAS) air base in Kuwait, and then spend a night or two at Camp Virginia, which is quite close to AAS.  If you are unlukcy, you’ll spend many nights at AAS.  We were lucky, and spent only two nights in Kuwait total.   All Army personnel must clear the CENTCOM theater through AAS, and then clear customs, and then wait in the Freedom tents for at least 10-15 hours before getting a bus over to Kuwait City Airport, and then flying back to the USA.  There are several routes, but the routes usually involve a stop on the flight from Kuwait City in either Leipzig Germany, or Shannon Ireland.  You then continue on to the USA, with possibly a stop in Bangor Maine, and a final destination that could be anywhere, but is often Dallas or Atlanta.

If you read my previous post about the 15-day leave trip, you know how miserable the process of getting home is (Link is HERE).  It was just as miserable this time, perhaps more so, but at least I was expecting it, so it didn’t discourage me as much this time.

Anyway, there are several more pictures that I took at Camp Virginia that I wanted to share.  This was my last day in the Middle East, and it’s worthwhile to share the pictures from Camp Virginia and the road home.

Camp Virginia is mostly a holding area for troops returning to the USA.  They have more things to do than AAS, and it’s slightly nicer.  One thing I liked is the Cinema, which plays sevearl movies every day.  The highlight of my day was watching the Hannah Montana movie, and part of “007 Moonraker.”  It’s in a tent, of course.  Here is the Cinema:

Camp Virginia Cinema

Virginia Cinema inside

It’s air conditioned and has chilled water.  Not a bad way to spend a few hours.

There is a very nice chapel on Camp Virginia, complete with a grove of trees that must take a lot of water:

Camp Virginia Chapel

That’s my NCO, SSG Freddie Scott in front of the chapel.  Here is an inside view:

Inside the Chapel

There are several hard-working third-country nationals (TCN’s), mostly from India or Nepal.  They do tough jobs, like cleaning the restrooms, picking up trash, and other such maintenance work.  Here is one guy with the unenviable task of emptying the trash can outside my tent in the blistering, 100+ degree heat:

A hard Job

There’s also much shopping, so that soldiers can blow their money in normal fashion.  Here is the Camp Virginia Food Court:

Camp Virginia food court

And a shop run by Indian guys, selling jewelry and exotic clothing:

Virginia shop

I eat at the DFAC and avoid shopping for tshcotchkes.  I’m playing a game, to see if I can spend the entire month of September without spending a penny.  So far I’m succeeding. 

There are many other things to do on Virginia. There is a nice phone/internet center, a USO, and a rec center.

Anyway, we packed up and left for Ali Al Salem around midnight.  We cleared customs at about 3AM.  Our flight left around 5PM that same day.  We spent a hellish day in the Freedom Tents, imprisoned and hot with little to eat or drink, and waiting for our ride to the airport.  But like I said, we were expecting a hellish day, so it wasn’t that bad this time.

We finally got on the buses and headed over to KCI airport.  Here is the terminal.  For security reasons, we don’t go to the terminal, of course.  They bus us right up to our airplane, and we get on the plane and fly out:

KCI Airport

We flew for 5 hours, and stopped in Shannon Ireland.  Not much to report about that place.  It’s just an air terminal that we visited in the middle of the night.  We then flew from Ireland to Bangor Maine, where we were warmly greeted, even at 2AM on a Tuesday night/Wed. morning!!  To view the video of our return to the USA, click below:

The Maine Troop Greeters

These folks are very nice to come out and meet every single flight that leaves or returns to the US from the Middle East.  To get more info, please visit their website:  http://mainetroopgreeters.com/ 

We spent perhaps an hour in Maine, and then continued our flight on to Biggs Field, at Fort Bliss, Texas.  It was good to be back in the USA again.  Here is our plane sitting on the runway at about 6AM, with a band that had come out to greet us:

Arrival at Fort Bliss

And that is the story of my Road Home.  I have much more to post about, including how things are going here at Fort Bliss, and a few other Iraq-related posts I’ll get to later. So stand by for more on the story of my deployment to Iraq, and how I will get back home.

At Camp Virginia, Kuwait

My last day in Iraq was delayed for unknown reasons.  We finally flew out from Joint Base Balad to Kuwait on Sunday. 

 It was a strange last day.  The night before we left, there was a sudden, violent dust storm.  I was riding my bike, and ended up cycling right into a wall of strongly blowing dust.  This was followed by rain, which lasted off and on until the morning.  This was the first rain I’ve seen in Iraq since about April, and I was glad to finally have something to reduce the dust.  It was terrible news, though, because a helicopter crashed that night on JBB. According to the newspaper, one person was killed and 12 others injured, and the accident was caused by high winds, and the fierce sandstorm that I had experienced on my final night in Iraq.  As I was awaiting the flight home, there was an incoming fire attack, and so I had to get down on the ground and wait for the “all clear”.  So my last day brought some grim reminders of how dangerous it can be in Iraq.

 So anyway, the rain really cleared up the weather the following day.  No dust and just a light breeze, so our flight was able to leave slightly ahead of schedule.  We flew on a nice, gigantic C-17, and it was a quick flight of just over an hour to Ali Al Salem airbase.  Here is a view of the interior of the C-17 (note, you can click on these photos to enlarge):

 Flight Home

We spent about 5 hours just sitting on buses after we arrived, which annoyed me greatly.  We got on buses after getting off the C-17, then got off to clear weapons, and got back on.  Then we got off for a silly briefing, then got back on.  Then got off to load luggage, then got back on. Then got off for another silly briefing, and got back on.  We finally arrived at our tents at Camp Virginia, Kuwait, around midnight.

 Camp Virginia is close to Ali Al Salem.  It is similar to Camp Buerhing, in that it is a desert landscape with pre-fabricated buildings and tents dotting the area.  When you deploy into Iraq, you stay at  Camp Buerhing.  When you re-deploy out of Iraq on the way back home, you stay at Camp Virginia.  Here is what it looks like:

 Camp Virginia

And a map (not to scale) given to me by a third-country national at the rec center:

 Camp Virginia Map

Of course, they have a USO, a phone center, a shopping mall, and of course everyone’s favorite coffee shop, for those who insist on paying for their coffee:

 Starbucks

I got a little sleep in the tent last night. It’s not that bad here, and the weather is not brutally hot.  Then again, maybe I’m getting used to hot weather and walking around in sand by now.  I’m very excited to be able to go home soon!!

 So we’ll be here for a little while, awaiting our flight to the USA.

My Last Day in Iraq

I’m not sure when we are flying out of here, but it is very soon. When I first arrived here, one of the things I saw was this old “Wing Gate” of JBB, greeting arrivals here since the base was built by the Iraqis:

 IMG_3341

It’s the end of a year in Iraq. I’ve been thinking of a few things over the past few days. Over this year, I’ve read two great books:

  •  The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne. Excellent history of the battle of Verdun in WW I, where 700,000 French and German soldiers died horrible deaths in an indecisive battle over several months.
  • The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer. A harrowing story about a soldier who served on the Eastern Front in WW II, and the terrible conditions soldiers faced during that war.

 Compared to what happened in previous conflicts, spending a year in Iraq really is no cause to complain. As you’ve seen through my previous blog posts, here in Iraq US forces have many comforts, including steak and seafood night as well as an endless supply of ice cream at the DFAC’s. Our lodging may require us to walk 100 yards to use the bathroom, but at least we have clean bathrooms and hot showers every day. We have phone and internet centers to help keep us in touch with home. There are gyms to work out at, and theaters and recreation centers to keep one amused. Chaplains and counselors galore assist with morale and spiritual well being.

 It’s easy to forget that there is an actual war happening. The base has gotten indirect fire perhaps once or twice a week from a mortar or rocket, but I’ve never seen or heard such an attack. The closest I ever came was one time when I was out riding my bike, I heard the alarm sound, and then later saw a plume of smoke about a half mile away where a rocket had struck in the middle of a gravel field. During this entire year, not a single person on Joint Base Balad has died on this base due to enemy action. That is amazing in itself, 30,000 people, military and contractors, all working together without a single death! Some have died due to suicide, medical conditions (heart attack, etc), and the like, although I don’t think we’ve had even a single accidental death on JBB this whole year either.

 I’ve done a great deal of legal work. JAG’s in Iraq do all sorts of things. Some are military justice specialists, who work on court-martialing soldiers or otherwise punishing misconduct. There is also Trial Defense Service, the military version of the Public Defender. Some JAG’s are contract and fiscal law specialists, dealing with things like Army purchasing of T-shirts to commemorate 5k runs on holidays, as well as contracting to supply water, transportation, or essential services and supplies here in Iraq. There are several JAG attorneys who just go to pointless meetings with commanders all day, and do other esoteric things. I think the civilian counterpart to them might be called “corporate counsel.” Here is a picture of me doing my job, meeting with local Iraqis out by the East Gate of the base, I went a bit further than usual, and saw the Sons of Iraq checkpoint where we are right at the exit of the base without going off, it was exciting to get so close to the real Iraq:

 At the East Gate JBB

Coming to Iraq has been a good experience. I’m proud to have served my country in a war zone, and I believe the work I do here is important and contributes to the victory against Al-Qaeda, and the re-construction of a free and democratic Iraq. The Iraqis are just like people everywhere, they want to protect their families, make money, and see their country improve for the benefit of themselves and their children. There are a small minority of extremists and fanatics, but by now they have largely been defeated. The US and coalition forces have won in Iraq, and now we are working to turn over the country to a stable, free, Iraqi government. We are winning.

 The last few days have gone by quickly. I’ve been giving or throwing stuff away, and packing. We took an office photo yesterday, and here is our legal group, squinting as we look into the bright morning Iraqi sunshine while we stand in front of an MRAP:

 SJA Office Photo 17 Sept 2009

Yesterday was sort of a spa day for me. There was not much work, and so I went to the pool to swim a bit and go off the high-dive a few times, and later got a manicure and pedicure. First time I’ve ever done that in my life, and it was nice. A surprising number of folks here avail themselves of the salon for facials, manicures, and massages. Like I said above, JBB is a pretty good place to be stationed if you’re going to be in Iraq.

It will be good to return to my family, especially my young children who don’t quite understand why I’ve been away for so long. So I can’t say I’m sorry to leave JBB. But it’s a good place to work, and like I say, I’m proud to have done my duty over the past year.   Auf Wiedersehen Iraq!

From the JBB Tower

The Old and the New Places to Eat

Construction workers have started to tear down my beloved old DFAC #2. At the start of the job, the scene looked like this:

 Tearing down old DFAC 2

If you look closely, you’ll see dozens of stickers people had put up on the entrance wall. This was a beloved DFAC, and I must have eaten breakfast here 250 times until it was closed. You already know what I think of the new DFAC #2 (in the background, above). So I’m sad whenever I ride by this site. It now looks like this, with much of it torn down already:

 Tearing down DFAC 2 later

 

There is a new place to eat now, it is called Ciano Italian Restaurant. It’s a brand-new construction, located next to the USO and across from the MWR East Rec Center, quite close to the PX. This place is doing good business, judging by the large groups of people that I’ve seen eating here. You can see that they’ve painstakingly recreated the aesthetic of Tuscany in this fine Italian villa:

 Ciano

Cianos Restaurant

Well, at least they have picnic benches on the porch, which some people like. The inside brings to mind the finest trattorias of Florence:

 Inside Cianos

Most of the cooks are Turkish or Nepalese TCN’s. I don’t like this place. The entire thing is sterile and lacking in style, and the food consists of mediocre pizza for $10 a pie. I see no reason to eat here rather than going to a nice place like DFAC #3, where one can eat all one wants for free.  But then I’m a frugal person.

 And here is another interesting thing. There is a large, gravel and dust parking lot between Ciano’s and the USO building. Convoys come in to park here, so that the soldiers can go to the PX, rec center, or pool and gym. So it’s not at all unusual to see several heavily armed vehicles in this lot. On this particular day last week, I decided to climb up on several of the vehicles and have a look. Here is a view of a team of Strykers that had come in from one of the outlying FOB’s (forward operating bases):

 Stryker

The folks let me look around inside and even play on top of their Stryker, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.

 Atop a Stryker

This friendly private is the good  fellow who gave me the tour and took most of these photos:

 Stryker Guy

There was a convoy of MRAP’s nearby, and I climbed up into the turret on top of one of these also. Here is a view from the top, looking at Ciano’s restaurant. Note how heavily armed the MRAP’s are, they have about as much armament as a Stryker (Cianos is in the background):

 Atop MRAP

The weird black thing at the front is lowered during operations outside the base. It contains glow-plugs, which emit a lot of heat. The purpose is to defeat mines that would otherwise be set off by the heat of the engine.

 And that is what it’s like at the old DFAC #2 and the parking lot of the new Ciano’s.

T-Wall Art

When you first arrive in Kuwait or Iraq, one thing that you immediately notice is the abundance of T-walls. These concrete barriers are everywhere, protecting people from the possible rocket or mortar attack. They are called “T-walls” because they look like an upside-down “T.” They have them in Baghdad as well, and the Iraqis use them to protect against blasts from suicide bombers or the like.

 There are thousands of the T-walls all over JBB. I’ve heard that they cost about $600 each, which means there is millions of dollars invested just in T-walls on this base. I’d say it’s a good investment, because it does add a sense of security, and probably deters rocket attacks. T-walls are a cost effective way of protecting from explosions.

 Only a tiny fraction of T-walls are painted. Most of them are painted with a unit symbol, naming the unit and the commander and senior NCO, and signed by the artists. These tend to be dreadful artworks. Some have symbols disclosing what sort of unit works at the place with the T-wall. Here is an example of one of the better such T-wall art collections (this building houses the chaplain, IG, EO, and Reserve Affairs offices, among others):

 T-Walls JBB

Many T-wall paintings are fading after years of exposure to the harsh Iraqi sun and dust. I’m always hesitant to sit on any T-wall base, because they are invariably coated with a thick layer of sand and dust, which I don’t like to get on my uniform. Here’s one that still looks pretty good, even after a few years:

 Mission Inn 259

Some T-walls have excellent art. An officer in my unit, Amanda Gatewood, has been trying to assemble a collection of the best art on JBB to make a book. Not sure how well that’s going, here is the very best T-wall art I’ve seen so far, located behind the Air Force Hospital:

 Mission Inn 279

Finally, one artistic medium that I thought I’d mention are coins. Some are very artistic as well, and these can be a bit expensive to procure. I’ve gotten 5 so far during my trip to Iraq. Here they are, sitting on my desk:

 Coins

(clockwise from upper left:

  • 3rd ESC coin from BG Lally for getting the Hooah of the week for paying foreign claims.  Noteworth for the dogtag shape of the coin.
  • MNC-I coin from MAJ Bill Stevens for giving a nice presentation on foreign claims.
  • Air Force Chaplain coin given to me for going to church
  • “Tops in Blue” an Air Force music/dance performing group gave me the aluminum coin.
  • A personal coin from a MAJ Emmons (it has his name inscribed in it), given to me for giving legal assistance to him.

 Many other military folks have coin collections with dozens, sometimes over a hundred coins, and special display cases just to hold their coins.

 Much more could be said or photographed on the subject of military coins and T-wall art, but you get the idea now.

Keeping in Touch With Home

Servicemembers here in Iraq have many ways to keep in touch with folks back home. Most soldiers have access to a work computer, and the NIPR on these computers NIPR (Nonsecure Internet Protocol Router Network) is used to exchange sensitive but unclassified information between “internal” users, but basically you can use it to access the internet and send emails. This is in contrast to the SIPR (Secret Network), which is highly restrictive and does not allow communication outside the network. It is acceptable to make limited use of the NIPR network for morale purposes, so long as this does not interfere with your official duties.

 In addition to having internet on your NIPR computers, there are phone centers all over the place. AT&T has call trailers set up, where they gouge you on AT&T phone card calls. For this, AT&T has earned my enmity. But when you first arrive in the Iraq/Kuwait Theater, you have little other choice.

 It is not hard to find a DSN phone (Defense switch network), and you can use these to make calls to other US military DSN phones anywhere in the world. This can be useful to make a calling card call, or to be connected by a local operator. I find this a cumbersome and slow process, and rarely use DSN, even though it’s not hard to get calling cards for free on this base.  There are also the Spawar phones. These are very nice, and they are the phones that I use most often. They are VOIP phones, and it costs 4 cents per minute to call the US. Finally, the US has a lobby with 8 free direct-dial VOIP phones. There is often a line to use these, and many soldiers spend their half hour talking with family back home on these phones. VOIP phones have great call quality, and are the easiest to use.  Much better all around than DSN, and I prefer paying 4 cents per minute for the ease of use and better call quality. Here is a photo of a typical call center, this one is at the Red Cross building, a very nice place to contact home. If you look closely, you’ll see both internet computers and VOIP phones (using Spawar), as well as a bookshelf full of books that are being given away. (photo taken around 5AM,when the center was empty except for me and my bike helmet atop one of the computers):

Red Cross call center

 Here’s another shot of the USO at Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait, with free direct-dials on the right, while people play video games on the left. Notice the ceiling, which is canvas in this glorified tent:

 Ali Al Salem USO

One of the stranger places on post is the JBB USO which has this DSN lounge, with 60’s-style egg-shaped chairs:

 USO DSN lounge

The best way to keep in touch with home is to get on a computer and use Skype for a video conference. This is free, but it’s also a bit of trouble to get to a computer with good internet access, and then set up the webcam and headset. Here is what this looks like (Judy is holding her beloved white rabbit):

 Skype Call

Even the Ugandans, Nepalese, and Filipino workers can keep in touch with home, usually by going to the internet centers and then doing a chat with folks back home. Not the best way to keep in touch, but it is free, and these folks earn little money to afford phone calls to places other than the USA, which can be extremely expensive. Most of these Third-Country National (TCN) workers are earning about $500 a month, so they really need to watch their money. It’s good that they can at least use internet chat for free to keep in touch with home.  The TCN’s treat the internet like gold.  Here is a group of mostly Ugandan TCN’s at the MWR East Rec Center computer/phone room:

Keeping in Touch at MWR East

I heard a story from a guy who works at the internet cafe on a remote part of base.  Normally the Ugandans are extremely polite and friendly.  But a few incidents have happened where upon being told that their internet time up, they became somewhat verbally disagreeable.  Afterwards, they always apologize, and return to being polite.  Access to the internet can cause such disputes.

 Being away from your family for a whole year is hard. But on a base like JBB, there is every reason to phone, email, or video chat with home every single day.

 It can be hard to communicate with little kids. My two daughters are 4 and 5 years old, and phone manners are new to them. We’ve developed some games, like singing familiar songs, which usually gets them interested in the call. Judy even sang the “Baba come back” song which she made up on her own. Rebecca likes to sing songs from the Disney movie Mulan. On video chat, we like to play games like I make a face, and the kids tell me what kind of face it is (happy, sad, scared, etc.). The kids like to turn the webcam upside down, which they think is very funny.

 We also do things were we show each other pictures over the internet. For example, the kids can show me drawings that they did that day, and I can comment on how nice they are. I also get art projects from my kids in the mail, and the kids like to see me holding their work up to the webcam even though we are far away. Another game they like to play is hide and seek, where I go out of webcam view, and then direct the webcam to other parts of the room, until the kids are able to find me. I’m sure people can think of other ways to keep young kids interested in phone and video calls. Just talking face to face does not interest them much. Judy has learned to read while I’ve been gone, and sometimes she enjoys just reading a book to me while I watch.

 The military allows you to send letters for free, and I send two letters home every week, mostly because my kids love opening mail addressed to them.

 Ten years ago, when I was a young captain in Korea, it was much less possible to communicate with home. Letter-writing has always been possible, of course. But making a phone call would cost $3 a minute, and so was quite rare. Email was just coming into use.

 Last year, when I was at Fort Hood in October 2008 doing pre-mobilization training, I met up with another major who was helping my unit. I don’t remember his name. During our talk, he said that while he was deployed overseas, he found that he had some of the sweetest and most heart-felt communication with his family, especially his wife. I thought that this statement was counter-intuitive, why would this happen only when you are thousands of miles away?  But over the past year, I’ve seen that it is true. My wife and I have had many nice exchanges, and I have tried hard to show my appreciation for her efforts to watch the kids while I’m gone. It is good to know that when I come home in a few weeks, I will be coming home to a marriage that is stronger than when I left, and a house with more love than ever before.