Nate's Blog entry from Iraq in 2005.
Everything is a haze now.
Not my mind, but my vision.
March 30, 2005
The haze of war
Everything is a haze now.
Not my mind, but my vision.
35-mph winds have sent dust into this office where I type. The dust dims the intensity of the office lights.
The dust parches my eyes and makes my lips stick to my teeth. Chapstick can only do so much.
This is where civilization began?
I don’t know how anything lives here.
(Cutline for photo) Spc. Jamie Hagen, 21, of Mankato clears dust from the windshield before leaving on a convoy with battle buddy Sgt. Danny Lowman, 33, of Albert Lea. “Somtimes I think, ‘If my friends could see me know,'” she says sitting behind the wheel of the heavy equipment transporter rolling along the Tampa route near Tikrit.
"Well, I’ve slowed the infiltration in there," says First Sgt.
Stan Sabin, walking into my part of the building with a fat roll of
green military duct tape.
Now he is taping all the windows in my office.
A soldier walks in and offers me a dust mask, which helps with the dust but is hot on my face.
You just can’t win sometimes.
At last, I did it. I napped. Three hours of sleep this afternoon, and I’m feeling charged.
I had hoped to sleep in today, but I needed to go to Tikrit for a press ID.
So again I woke early, 5 a.m., and hooked up with a convoy.
Seven hours later, I had my ID.
Hurry and wait, is how things go here. Patience is hard to maintain,
but I’ve realized this is how things are here, and nobody is going to
The soldiers seem to have adjusted to all the waiting. They cope
with it by napping in the trucks, smoking and listening to music.
The iPod is popular. Most vehicles have a digital music player and some cheap computer speakers.
Tomorrow, I hope to visit with an Iraqi family, but I am told I will
need a special forces team, and this could take some time to acquire.
Anyone leaving the base goes in a convoy, and no convoy will stop for me to interview an Iraqi family.
Typically, about 20 vehicles of all shapes, sizes and functions
assist with the transportation of supplies in this conflict zone.
A CLP or Combat Logistic Patrol, which is yet another name for a
convoy, can haul cargo ranging from beef jerky to an 80 RTCH, a Rough
Terrain Cargo Handler.
Concrete barricades, SUV’s, broken equipment, water, food, vehicle
parts, and medical supplies are some of the more common loads.
Third Country Nationals, which are truck drivers from neighboring
countries, line up at the gate before stopping at the holding area.
They bring supplies from all over the world to the base where
everything is loaded onto trailers.
Bravo Company hauls everything but ammo and fuel.
As Sabin tapes the window at my right, I ask where he works.
"I’ve been at Hormel since 1973," he says. "They’ve been very good
to me. For every month I am here, they give me one week’s pay."
"They are doing what the law requires, and then they are going above and beyond," he says.
Time for a smoke break.
As I step outside, I pass platoon commander Maj. Jeff Howe with his head down.
I ask how things went with his meeting where he made a request for my embed with a civilian patrol.
He tells me it’s not good.
"We have a bad situation right now," he says.
A 9-year-old boy was shot and killed today as he approached the wire, the perimeter of our base.
But my spirits lift just minutes later as Howe makes a phone call, trying to get me in the civilian patrol mission.
"He’s not you’re typical reporter in my book. He’s pretty squared away," he says on the phone to the mission commander.
He hangs up. "You’re good to go."
Now, I’m nervous.
I really need to watch what I ask for.
March 29, 2005
Combat at 100 mph
Coke tastes best when sitting inside the ‚Water Palace.‚
The elaborate, gaudy Al Faw palace is surrounded by a manmade lake stocked with carp. Built for Saddam Hussein, the palace has 60 rooms and 29 bathrooms. Crystal chandeliers hang from gold-plated chains, which complement the gold-plated door handles.
The floors and walls are marble. Even the spiral staircase and massive columns are marble. It is surreal.
Inside the palace, Combined Joint Task Force-7 planned their next move in this conflict zone.
Waiting for my helicopter flight from Camp Victory, I was given a brief tour of the palace. I had 30 minutes to take photographs and write and check e-mail.
Leaving Baghdad in a Blackhawk helicopter, I see the stark contrast between the fancy palace and the shacks and mud homes just outside its walls.
The helicopter ride to Balad proved eventful.
Combat first presented itself to me at 100 mph as we passed over the town of Khalis, where a convoy was under attack. We veered away from the fracas as two Apache helicopters roared in to assist in the fight.
I was feeling secure in the heavily armed Blackhawk. We proceeded to Balad ‚without incident‚ as they say here.
My first night in Iraq, I stayed at Camp Victory on the edge of Baghdad.
At midnight, I went to the mess hall for some chow.
At 1 a.m., I wandered the camp lost, trying to find my tent.
By 1:30 a.m., I was asleep.
At 2 a.m., I awoke to the sound of mortars as they thumped in the distance. I was exhausted and fell back asleep.
I am pleased to inform you that my stay thus far has been without incident.
So much to tell
Photo caption: Grant VanRyswyk, 24, of Albert Lea, mans the gunner position on a Humvee while on a mission to Forward Operating Base Summerall Wednesday. The red bull is the sign of the Bravo Company.
No matter how many cups of coffee or cigarettes I have, I can only bring you so much before my eyes sting with exhaustion and I forget what I was writing.
There is so much more I wish I had time to share.
I want to tell you about where I shower ‚Äî a latrine converted into a shower.
I want to tell you about the Blackhawk helicopter ride and the C-130 ride.
I want to tell you about
… what I saw on the streets of Tikrit.
… the cross-eyed Saddam Hussein mural at the entrance to camp.
… the Red Bull division’s pride and how the Red Bull energy drink appears to be the unofficial drink of Bravo Company.
… all the candy at the ‚Hunting Shack‚ sent from home.
… the friendship I see among the troops.
… how the air is dry and dust, not sand, blows everywhere.
… the scarce wildlife (I have seen 2 desert foxes and some birds).
And so to keep my mind at ease, I have to tell you this …
Whatever I can‚Äôt present while I’m here, you are invited to the Austin Public Library (maybe the Paramount Theatre) when I get back so I can share with you the many experiences I wish I had time to write about.
I really need to pick and choose my battles, no pun intended.
The convoys are irresistible: Starting at 0400 and returning at various times of the afternoon or night, I can only get so much done.
Stay tuned …
March 27, 2005
A travel day
Just arrived at Camp Striker outside of Baghdad International Airport. It has been a long day of travel.
I started out in Kuwait City with a taxi from my hotel to another hotel, the Hilton, about a 25-minute drive away. From the Hilton, I rode a bus for an hour to the Ali Al Salem Air Base.
The bus driver is our unofficial tour guide as we pass camels and sheep grazing on the sparse green grass in the desert. He talks of the Kuwaiti admiration for the Chevrolet Caprice.
‚It‚Äôs the premium car to own (in Kuwait), better than the Mercedes. The one they got here you can‚Äôt buy in the States.‚ he says.
‚They just love ‚Äòem," he continues. "It‚Äôs got the V8 and rear wheel drive. You can‚Äôt afford to drive those in the States, but it‚Äôs like a sports car. It‚Äôs like a Monte Carlo SS.‚
Arriving at the air base, we unload our bags and a take a seat outside in a big gravel parking lot with a trailer. A dog sniffs all the bags before they are strapped as cargo.
We then board a C-130 bound for Mosul, then Baghdad.
Inside the cargo plane, we sit on folding nylon bench seats. Nineteen troops are bound for Mosul, our first stop, then another 10 heading to Baghdad. Wearing their body armor and helmets, they all have the same calm, relaxed faces.
It is too loud to make conversation, and most everyone wears the ear plugs we were given as we boarded through the back of the plane.
The soldier sitting across from me is wearing headphones plugged into a CD player. He chews gum as he reads Popular Science magazine.
Others sit on their vests, using them for protection from shots taken by insurgents below during takeoff and landing. I was advised to sit on my vest, so I did.
I craved a view out one of the two small windows at the center of the plane. Two soldiers with the flight crew sit and gaze out the windows.
I know the sun is setting, and when we arrive in Baghdad it is dark. All I can see are artificial lights, powered by generators.
This is ‚a bus stop‚ as one soldier tells me, a place where troops arrive and then move on to meet up with their companies.
I passed up an MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) while waiting at the air base, and now I‚Äôm feeling hungry. So hungry, in fact, that as much as I would like to share more about today, I need to eat.
There is an ‚Internet Cafe‚ here. I am told I can use a computer for half an hour, so off I go to file this then eat.
Tomorrow, I board a helicopter for Camp Speicher, where the missions begin.
March 25, 2005
Newspaper and a taxi driver
Reading the Arab Times’ Thursday-Friday edition while in Kuwait City …
In the ‚Local‚ section of the newspaper is this headline, ‚Saddam must pay for his deeds: Kuwait‚
The article reveals the support the Kuwaiti government has for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In the article is a quote from Kuwaiti’s head of missions in Geneva, Ambassador Dharar Abdul-Razzak Razzooqi.
‚Iraq is no more a place for killing fields," Razzooqi says. "Two
years have elapsed since the fall of the most vicious regime, and we
witness the birth of new Iraq where millions of Iraqi men and women,
cast the vote in free and democratic elections.‚
I am beginning to understand why my stay in Kuwait City has been a pleasant one.
I have never experienced such hospitality. I don‚Äôt think I have had a request denied yet.
Whatever I need, they bring it to my door with a smile, even a bit out of breath, as if they hurried to deliver it.
I realize I am in a fine hotel here in Kuwait, and I don‚Äôt claim to
have a perspective on what Kuwait’s working class thinks of Americans,
but I can tell you about what I have experienced here.
It started when a man working the hotel office at the airport sent for a car to pick me up at the airport.
They carried my luggage to the curb, and a man waited outside with me for the car. He and the driver loaded my bags.
Driving to the hotel, I was pleased that the driver spoke some English.
He is from Egypt and came to Kuwait to make more money than what he
could earn at home. But this comes at a cost. He visits his family back
in Egypt only two times a year.
I explain to him that many Mexicans come to the part of the United
States where I live for the same reason he is in Kuwait. He does not
know where Minnesota is.
He appears happy, smiling, driving fast and telling me about Kuwait City and how much he likes it.
He tells me that the guests at this hotel claim it is not just a four-star hotel but a six or seven, then laughs.
‚This is my hotel.‚ he says, as we approach.
He is proud.
Arriving at the hotel, waiting for a man waving a bomb detector
under the car, he tells me again, ‚This is my hotel‚ with a big smile
and eyes gazing upward at the hotel with decorative exterior lighting.
He showed that same sense of pride we Americans have when bringing
home visitors from the airport. ‚This is my home,‚ we say as we pull
into the driveway.
And all the while he’s beaming about "his" hotel, I am thinking, four weeks a year he sees his family.
My two weeks away from home have suddenly become very short.
What is all this?
Dusk in Kuwait City, seen from the 20th floor of my hotel.
I just realized you might want to know who this is and what I’m doing in Iraq?
For almost six years I have worked in the Austin bureau of the Post-Bulletin as a photographer.
Now, I am half a world away.
It is my privilege to bring to you stories from Company B of the 434th Main Support Battalion stationed in Iraq. The company in based in St.Cloud and Austin, Minn., and is composed of troops from across southeastern Minnesota and beyond.
Today, I write to you from Kuwait. But tomorrow, March 26, I board a plane for Baghdad. From Baghdad, I’ll take a helicopter to Tikrit to be embedded with Company B at Camp Speicher.
There, I hope to meet with your neighbors, brothers, spouses or friends serving in the Minnesota National Guard. And I look forward to sharing their stories.
Stay tuned …
Jelly Bellies over Iraq
I am flying from Amsterdam to Kuwait.
Ahead of me is a monitor displaying "Bridget Jones’s Diary." I watch the movie but don’t plug in the headphones.
Here I am on a flight to the edge of a war zone and this is the best they can do for entertainment?
It’s not long before I turn my attention the small bag of colorful Jelly Bellies on my folding table.
My daughter, Jannel, 7, gave them to me just before I left. We were
standing in the kitchen when she handed me the bag, saying, "If you get
one that has two stuck together you have double good luck."
So, of course there was one that was really two stuck together.
I figured I need double good luck now, at the beginning of this
odyssey. Now, as I fly over Iraq, about 15 Jelly Bellies remain in the
Every now and then I pop one in my mouth and think of the hug and kiss we shared after she gave me the bag in the kitchen.
It was an emotional moment. She had tears in her eyes, which led to tears in my eyes.
But I couldn‚Äôt be more proud of my big girl. She always shares.
And then there is my boy, Lukas, 3.
The night before I left, he was asleep in his bed, curled up with his matted puppy close to his face.
His lips were just slightly open, and I leaned over and listened to
him breathe. I ran my fingers through his fine, blond hair, admiring
every detail of his face.
Then, I went downstairs and laid beside my wife, cramped on our couch. We just held each other in silence.
Now in Kuwait, the Jelly Bellies have so far proven to be good luck, even double good luck.
The cook, a ’92 Golf,’ talks
On a 6-hour flight from Amsterdam to Kuwait, I sit beside a cook.
He‚Äôs classified as a "92 Golf." No, that is not a pre-owned Volkswagen but a cook, a sergeant in food service at Camp Anaconda.
He enlisted in the Marines in 1989 with something to prove.
His father had told 92 Golf that he doubted his son would be able to
graduate from the Marines. 92 Golf, who asked his name be withheld,
proved his father wrong.
"When I showed up for church after graduation in my ‚pressed blues‚ (Marines uniform) they just lit up.‚
Naturally, I ask, ‚How is the food?‚
‚It‚Äôs OK‚, replies 92 Golf.
There is more variety and better quality then at the beginning of
the war, he says. He even prepares special meals for vegetarians,
diabetics, and troops with high blood pressure.
‚And how many do you feed at Camp Anaconda?‚ I ask.
‚I don‚Äôt even know the number, but it is a lot‚ he says with his hands spread wide as if holding a beach ball.
92 Golf also spent time in the first Gulf war. ‚History repeats itself‚ he says.
92 Golf is a history buff. A Christian who says he copes with the
stress through prayer and ‚keeping a good relationship with the Lord‚.
Holding a Bible, he explains how he is ‚seeing their (Shiites and Turks) ancestors, and it is amazing.
‚This (Mesopotamia) is where it all began.‚
He says he hears mortar fire every day with Camp Anaconda in the ‚hot zone‚.
How do you deal with the stress I ask?
Call home a lot, play games, sing, tell jokes, anything to keep
morale up, he says. He has a wife and two children in South Carolina.
‚As long as you get it off your chest and talk to somebody‚ he says
about the stress and emotions, adding that, "Rank doesn’t matter when
you are hurting."
92 Golf says the Chaplain has one of the hardest jobs in the war.
He continues explaining the mind of the soldier.
‚It is like an on/off switch. A mortar round comes in, and game’s over. You get serious.‚
As for relationships with Iraqis, as often is told, he says the enemy is all around.
‚We do our best to win the confidence of civilians here. We are here to help them," he says.
I am amazed at how relaxed he is.
He simply closes his eyes and falls asleep siting upright, like a horse at rest. He talks slow. He is confident.
I tell him this is my first time to a war zone.
Like all the others, he says, "Just keep your head down." I’m beginning to think they are serious when they say this.
I give him my business card, and he tucks it into his Bible.
An Alaskan soldier at the airport
Waiting for my flight to Kuwait, I sit find an American dressed in desert camo:
Sitting at Gate 43 at the Amsterdam airport, Private First Class Jason Freyler sits relaxed in a chair passing time with an occasional Marlboro Light.
Freyler, 26, is returning from emergency leave for his father‚s funeral back home in Washington.
Around his neck he carries his father in the form of ashes in a silver cross. ‚He is with me everywhere I go‚ says Freyler holding the cross between his thumb and index finger.
For Freyler, enlisting in the Army was for one reason; his father, a decorated World War II veteran. Freyler is proud to list the awards his father earned in WW II: a Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star and Purple Heart.
‚He was very proud of me. He told me he respected me for serving our country.‚
I joined to follow in his footsteps. That was the whole reason.‚
What Freyler did not tell his dad was that he is ‚still trying to figure out what we are doing over there.‚
Freyler and his company are a ‚Chem‚ (chemical) unit. Trained for Recon, searching for Nuclear Biological Chemical, or Decon, cleaning up the mess. ‚It‚s scary stuff,‚ says Freyler.
He questions why he is on border patrol on the Kuwait-Iraq border when he is with a chemical unit.
‚The Iraqis need to carry their own weight.‚ he says.
‚We need to focus more on the border in our own country rather than being over here,‚ he says.
‚This goes into Homeland Security. What did they do… forget that part?‚ rolling his eyes and shaking his head.
He expresses his dislike for the politics in the Army however, he is a firm believer in the values learned from serving.
Freyler says all high school graduates should enlist in the military adding that violence and drug use would be down and respect and discipline up.
Traveling in uniform back home for the funeral, he says he was disappointed by the lack of support he received.
‚I don‚t think they (American public) get what we are doing for them.‚ he says, ‚Look, we‚re doing you a service, protecting our country and you don‚t want to show respect?‚
At home and among family he finds support.
His two brothers and mother are proud of him. His younger brother is eager to join the military and follow in big brother‚s footsteps.
And when his five years in the service are up, Freyler wants to apply his experience with nuclear biological chemicals and join a hazardous materials team.