January 28th – Iraq (John Baker)
I woke up to Cogs complaining about the temperature. Now don’t get me wrong, I like it cold, but in the 40’s is a bit cold for me so I could see his point. Our rooms are individual bunkers that protect us from any IEDs that may be lobbed over the wall and into the camp. Where we are staying looks like a bunch of shipping crates stacked on one and other. I’ve been told that Iraqi and Iranian culture fight much differently than we do, they would prefer to put a gun on a tripod and fire it from a remote control instead of dealing with people face to face. They are scared of the American Soldiers in any one on one, eye to eye situation. Due to this factor, the biggest problem the camp at Basra faces is this kind of faceless threat, Therefore most of the living quarters here are well protected from anything lobbed over the wall.
After breakfast, while we were walking over to the flight line to board a Blackhawk helicopter and fly to Camp Shaiba, we met a large group of Army Infantrymen about to head out on a patrol of the surrounding areas in Humveees and MRAVs. Humvees are the ones that everyone back home associates with the Army. We learned that all vehicles here have this wooden hot box that sits on a metal pole and extends out about ten feet in front of the vehicle. The box emits the same amount of heat as the engine. They have these on there to combat against little charges that are hidden throughout the desert that are set off by engine heat. By putting the box out in front of the vehicle, if one goes off, it will blow up the box, and not the Humvee or the troops. We took a bunch of hardcore looking photos, with guns up on top of the vehicles and talked with a bunch of the guys.
We then hitched a ride to the flight line and boarded a Blackhawk Helicopter for a trip up to Camp Shaiba. The helicopter ride was awesome, although we only flew in a straight line. I don’t think they wanted to show us any tactical maneuvers, so our trip was really cool, but quick.
Camp Shaiba is a FOB (forward operating base) where we train the IA (Iraqi Army). The main goal at Camp Shaiba is to teach the new Iraqi army how to stand on it’s own. American Soldiers teach members of the IA everything from logistics to explosives, hand to hand combat to basic communication skills. At Shaiba, we did another autograph/meet & greet session and met a bunch more people. I was amazed at the good spirits in this base and the effort and attention to detail shown while dealing with people that were recently sworn enemies of our country. We partook in a Medal Ceremony because the men and women were getting ready (thank God!!!) to return home. It was an inspiring moment helping pin medals on brave men and women being recognized by the Army for their commitment to our country. We also met our first Marine, and they are a different breed. The Marine Captain wanted to know where we were headed next because he was separated from his battalion (which was in Wessam, our next stop) and wanted his mail from them. He explained that when you are away from home you count down the days in between mail deliveries and they had had his stuff for two weeks! He gave us some cigars as a bribe.
Our next stop on the Blackhawk tour of southern Iraq was Wessam, the smallest FOB we had been too at this point. I think that this is the kind of place I was expecting to see more of on this trip. As we were walking in from the landing zone, we ran into General Aziz of the IA. According to the US Military members that were walking us into the base, he is one bad dude, not to be messed with. They seemed to show him a lot of respect, so we did too. The highlight of this stop was the first Fredi Gonzalez birthday celebration. After we were done eating, we got to watch a Marilyn Monroe like version of “Happy Birthday” by a midriff baring male soldier dressed in a Chase Utley jersey. It was definitely something special, and I’ll leave it at that. I talked for a long time with a soldier from Odessa, Texas. I spent a year an a half in the Permian basin myself (playing baseball for the Midland Rockhounds) and we discussed what we liked and disliked about that area. Our final stop was next, little did we know that the short chopper ride would take us to a remote and intense place.
Camp Minden sits right on the Iran/Iraq border and some of the soldiers there will stand directly face to face with their Iranian counterparts for hours at a time. I learned a lot more about the local culture and practices. It seems the more I learn, the less I understand. I know that sounds ignorant, but it is the truth. Camp Minden is run by a young Army Captain from upstate New York, he seemed wise beyond his years, and his professionalism was a direct result of his Army training. Minden is hands down, the smallest base we have seen. There are no women stationed there, so the Mermaids were in high demand. This was the most rewarding base to visit as the guys here were so grateful and surprised that we would show up to their tiny little FOB on the border. They operate small cameras that were on balloons in order to protect Iraq from the possibility of Iranian invasion. We then hopped back on the blackhawk and took it to our home base, Basra.
We has one final surprise when we got home, an Apache Helicopter. This is a 30 Million Dollar weapon that the army considers it’s most lethal piece of equipment. It takes a year of training to pilot one and it has all different kinds of crazy weapons systems. 30 MM rounds that can be fired as pressures bombs!
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