A Tribute to the JBB USO

When you arrive in Iraq, you are far from home and in an unfamiliar environment.  Most of Joint Base Balad consists of warehouses or working buildings dedicated solely to the Army mission, and it’s not a friendly, welcoming, or comfortable place. 

 As shown in past posts, JBB has many other ways to compensate.  I’ve discussed the swimming pools, the rec centers and gyms, the movie theater, the wonderful food at the DFAC’s.  One special place on JBB is the USO.

 USO stands for United Service Organizations.  The USO Website says “Since just before World War II, the USO has been the bridge between the American people and our men and women in uniform, conveying the heartfelt appreciation and support of a grateful nation. Whether it is a quiet place to go for rest and relaxation, movies refreshments, or a friendly face, the USO consistently delivers its special brand of service to the military.”  You may remember learning about Bob Hope or other entertainers going around during WWII to entertain troops in connection with USO events.  The USO has had facilities around the world dedicated to helping comfort troops.   Today, the USO has some lovely facilities in certain major airports, such as the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, which include things like free meals and snacks, video taping soldiers reading books to their children, and even a place to sleep if you are stuck overnight at the airport.  There are USO’s all over the world.

 The JBB USO is primarily a place to hang out and relax.  They have a big-screen TV which constantly has on a movie, two telephone rooms where you can phone the USA for free on a VOIP phone, and an internet room where troops can use computers.  They also have game rooms, and a great many books, magazines, and other little presents (e.g. toothbrushes, sunscreen, etc.) for the troops. 

 JBB’s USO was the first in Iraq, and it’s likely the best.  It’s located in one of the old Iraqi buildings, and surrounded by T-walls like every other building on JBB.  It’s very close to the Post Exchange and right across from the main East Side rec center and fitness center, and so it’s in the middle of the action at JBB.  Here is what it looks like in front:

  

When you enter, you see the front desk, which always has someone ready to offer help.  They also have snacks, including cookies, popcorn, and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (make them yourself).  Of course, free water is available, as it is at most every building.  The military is required to give you water.  The front desk will set you up with a game, or a craft — they have these strings that people love to knot up to make bracelets, which is very fun and a nice way to make a souvenir from Iraq.

 Here’s the front desk:

 

The computer room:

 

The lounge, where people could use Wi-Fi on their laptops:

  

And of course the bathroom, which never really worked all that well:

 

When I was leaving JBB, the USO was in the middle of a major renovation, and they were getting a great deal of brand new furniture.  So it is likely that the USO now looks different than it did in these Aug/Sep. 2009 photos.  One other big project was the installation of the movie room, which you can read about here:

 http://www.forthoodsentinel.com/story.php?id=1862

 You’ll see my photo at the grand opening, sitting next to the cute Air Force gal.

 The USO has a very friendly staff.  I would go there pretty much every day my entire year, sometimes twice a day, and got to know them all.  It was a nice place to relax, read the Stars & Stripes paper, and maybe watch a movie.   Here is the USO staff, including Eugene (far left), myself, a couple of military volunteers, and Suzanne Sigurdson:

 

My very favorite thing was “Family Guy Fridays” at the USO.  This consisted of free pizza ordered from the Pizza Hut, and a FG marathon.  It was a lot of fun to watch Family Guy with all the other troops, and hear everyone roaring with laughter at the crazy humor in that show.  The USO is where I got hooked on FG.

 Here is Suzanne with a couple of visiting USO honchos. 

 Suzanne is a very energetic and happy person, she always greeted me when I came in.  Her husband lives in Iceland, while she works in Iraq.  She is presently organizing a female football league, and I wonder how well that is going.  Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to take photos of the two young guys from Washington State who often staff the USO. They left for leave before I could photograph them.  Those guys were 25 years old, and had long hair, which made them really stand out among the military crowd with the military haircuts.  But they were good guys, no doubt about it!

 The outside patio almost always had someone hanging out and smoking, or talking.  It’s where I parked my bike every day.  Even in the hottest parts of the summer, you’d see people hanging out here, especially in the evenings.  It was always dusty, but people loved it.  Here are a few soldiers hanging out on the back patio:

 

So anyway, this is my tribute to the Joint Base Balad USO.  I spent so many hours there, and greatly appreciated all that the USO did for the soldiers and airmen at JBB!   You are a great place, and a great organization.  Thanks to all who worked at, or volunteered with, the JBB USO!!!

Blogging in Iraq

There are a few more things that I’d like to say about the deployment to Iraq, so this blog will keep going for a few more months, maybe even longer.   The topic for today is blogging itself.

 When I started this blog, it was for two reasons.  First, to keep my family and friends informed about what was going on for me in Iraq.  It’s easier to do the blog than to try to explain everything to every one of my friends, and the blog allows the sharing of photos and other files very easily, which makes it a great way to keep in contact with folks back home.  So from time to time I’d email my friends and let them know to check on my blog, and kept a link to this blog on my Facebook page.

 The second reason I created this blog was to let the world know the truth about what life is really like in Iraq, which is a job that the media in general is not doing well.  I show pictures and descriptions of real life at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.  You can judge for yourself how well I’ve done this. 

 One idea I don’t think I’ve conveyed adequately is just how safe it is in Iraq for US personnel.  About 95% of the folks in Iraq never leave the base, even on a convoy.  The base itself is very well protected.  There is a 15-foot high fence surrounding the perimeter with motion sensors, and guard towers.  Nothing gets into our out of the base unless it’s carefully checked by some good security forces.  The entire year, I never heard of anything like a ground attack on any base anywhere in Iraq.  The only threat was the occasional mortar or rocket attack, perhaps once every week or two.  Most of these missed the base entirely, and those that hit usually hit the middle of a gravel yard somewhere.  So aside from the occasional mortar or rocket attack, being on Joint Base Balad is about as safe as you can be in the USA, really!  The entire year, nobody on my base died from enemy action, although some died from suicide, accidents, or medical conditions (e.g. heart attack).  I believe being in Iraq is just as safe for any soldier as being in any US city.  This is something you’ll never hear about in the mainstream media.  I also believe that the Iraqis generally like us, and look at US Forces as a source of stability, economic growth, and an honest broker in the reconstruction of their country.

 This blog has been a lot more popular than I thought it would ever be.  So far, it’s gotten over 50,000 hits.  It still gets 200 to 300 hits per day, over a month after I’ve left Iraq.  This is a great source of information on Joint Base Balad, which is why people keep checking it out.  This is the place to go if you want to see what a salad bar looks like at a JBB DFAC, or see the dance at the rec center, see an MRAP, or many other things.  Google Images lists my photos of the movie theater and pool as some of the most popular depictions of JBB.  Apparently I’m also one of the few places on the web to describe Camp Buehring, and that page gets a steady stream of hits.  I’ve also been pleased to get some favorable press, including this recent article in my hometown newspaper:

 http://www.thecamarilloacorn.com/news/2009-10-23/Neighbors/Blog_sheds_light_on_Army_life_in_Iraq.html

 So if anyone else in Iraq is interested in blogging, I hope that this blog provides some inspiration.  Bloggers are doing a fine job of showing the American people what is really going on in Iraq.

 Now onto the topic of some critics of this blog.  All year long, I’ve gotten the occasional negative email from someone wishing to attack the blog.  The most common reason is that the critic takes issue with the “OPSEC” (operational security) of the blog, a military way of saying that I have been giving away military secrets, or that this blog is otherwise illegal.

 Any discussion of this topic should begin with reference to Army Regulation 530-1, AR 25-2, and also U.S. Army Public Affairs Fact Sheet dated 2 May 2007, interpreting AR 530-1.  In addition the military command in Iraq has published MNCI Policy #9 regarding blogs (I’m posting all of these public documents here  AR 25_2; AR 530_1MNCI Policy #9; USA PA Fact Sheet on Blogging). 

 The main rules regarding a blog are:

 1.         A soldier should inform his or her OPSEC officer and immediate supervisor when establishing a blog.  Army Regulation 530-1. (I have done this).

2.         In no way will every blog post/update a Soldier makes on his or her blog need to be monitored or first approved by an immediate supervisor and Operations Security (OPSEC) officer.  America’s Army respects every Soldier’s First Amendment rights while also adhering to Operations Security (OPSEC) considerations.

3.         “Prevent disclosure of critical and sensitive information in any public domain” (AR 530-1, para. 2-1(c)(1).  Specifically, “Do not publicly disseminate, or publish photographs displaying critical or sensitive information. Examples include but are not limited to Improvised Explosive Device (IED) strikes, battle scenes, casualties, destroyed or damaged equipment, personnel killed in action (KIA), both friendly and adversary, and the protective measures of military facilities.” 

 If anyone cares to take the time to review these references, and then review my blog, I am convinced you will not find a single violation of any rule or policy in this blog. 

 Despite my adherence to the above, I still get emails like this one:

 ———————————————-

Author : Melinda Patterson

Comment:

Hi Brian.  Just a quick message.  I think it is really great that you kept a running journal on your stay and happenings in Iraq.  Unfortunately, I also think that it was meant to be private.  There are certain things that just shouldn’t be shared with others.  Sending comments to your wife to discuss things on how it is going for you and to get support is one thing.  Announcing it to the world is totally different.  As you should know being a soldier.  To release information on crashes and being under fire is uncalled for and may cause terrible thoughts and findings for family members.  Which is not your place or your job.  That is why we have family readiness groups.  It is also my opinion that you are putting your fellow soldiers in danger by some of the things you have said.  Especially to display maps of the camps.  That is like saying here is an open invitation.  You may be leaving, but there are others still serving, in which my husband being one of those soldiers still there.  So for you to compromise him or any other soldier is pure stupidity!  How you have gotten away with this is beyond me.  You should be reprimanded for this.  In closing, I do hope that you have a safe return to your home and family.  Every soldier deserves that!!!

———————————————-

 The email takes issue with me for several things, including:

1.  Talking about a helicopter crash on the base — I blogged about this two days after the incident was published in the newspapers, and disclosed nothing beyond what the newspapers already included.  Hard to see how one could possibly compromise anything by referring to something already in the newspapers.

2.  Describing being under fire   — Point taken, in that describing battle scenes and the protective measures of military facilities is prohibited.  The bottom line is that EVERYONE knows that we get rocket and mortar attacks, and this information is so widely known, that I don’t see how any reasonable person could take issue with my writing something like “The only threat was the occasional mortar or rocket attack, perhaps once every week or two. . . . ”  This is such a general report on the attacks, that I believe freedom of the press clearly takes precedence in this case.

3.  Displaying maps of the camps.  The maps I’ve posted are either taken from Google Earth (a public source of information), or are maps that are so out of scale that they could not reasonably be used for any attack on the base.  Bear in mind that we let thousands of Iraqis onto our bases, and the general location of most facilities is very well known to these folks.  The secrecy factor of these maps is extremely low, inasmuch as they are given to foreign nationals as well, and I see no realistic security threat caused by my posting the maps that are on this website.

I believe that the blog is 100% legal, and 100% proper.  Nothing on this blog is a threat to the lives or safety of US personnel anywhere.   Anyone taking issue with this is welcome to challenge this assertion, and my email address and contact information is prominently posted on this blog for you to do so. 

 There were several other emails written to criticize the blog, most of which were not nearly as articulate or constructive as Ms. Peterson’s.  I’m not sure what would motivate someone to write a nasty email to me, but hey, it’s the internet and anonymity makes people do weird things.

 The worst thing that can be said is that I posted some photos from the JBB airfield, and unknown to me there is some Air Force rule prohibiting any pictures from the airfield.  Even the Air Force folks who saw my pictures realized that there was no threat from the photos I posted, and so they did not take issue with my blog.  The bottom line is that nowhere in this blog, anywhere, is there any information that could be used to threaten American lives, or compromise sensitive information.  I invite others to take issue with this, and you are welcome to contact me with any concerns after viewing this blog.

 I was pleased to get several positive responses.  A few days after I got back, I received a lovely letter from Leah Ritter, whose husband was in the unit that replaced mine.  The letter stated “Thank you for your very wonderful Joint Base Balad blog.  The time, energy, and detail put into it has served as an invaluable resource for my family here. …  Searching for info on Balad, I came upon your blog.  Now I know what T-walls looked like.  It quickly became a resource for the kids and me to see what life was like at JBB – even reptile, bird & plant life….  Last night my 9-year old was tickled by the photos you posted of the Christmas Parade and the one of you on Santa’s lap…  Even the video of the Maine Troop Greeters at 2AM was great – Mark had told me he felt so appreciated by them in Bangor.  And now I’ve experienced what that was like for him.  My family appreciates your service to our country, your sacrifice of a year away from home and family, and your dedication in writing and sharing your experiences.”

 WOW!  Thank you very much Leah!!  I’ve gotten dozens of similar emails with similar thoughts, but this was the first actual letter, and it says it all so very well.  Ms. Ritter’s letter even included a nice family photo.  Anyway, I am glad to have done the blog, and I hope it helps others to understand life in Iraq.

 The above topics are very valid concerns, and anyone blogging in Iraq should be aware of the above discussion.  If you are ready to start blogging, I highly recommend WordPress (www.wp.com).  It is great, because you can put your text, photos, and other files including even video, all on the blog for the world to see.  Let other sites like Milblogging.com and the Thunder Run have a link to your blog, they are great at promoting military blogs.  Go ahead and get started, and let me know if you do!!