November 2004 Dubai Trip Part I

Hey Man, It’s Like A War or Something!

Mosul Palace

Woohoo! Time to get out for a bit again, and go to Dubai for a few days. It’s been in planning for many weeks now. As it turns out, my timing has put it into a very busy time. Oops. It will be nice, since things have been rather active here since the start of Ramadan, whereas before you’d get an attack just at the end of the call to prayer as if to punctuate it with a concussive and shrapnel filled “amen.” I’d comment on the etymology of “amen” but that would be digressing even farther than usual for me. Also, I may have used the word describing the study of bugs instead of word origins there. I don’t feel like looking it up though. Where was I?

Oh yes, anyways, during Ramadan we got hit several times a day. Before, it was just harassment fire. Then I think they started trying to kill people. Very ill-mannered of them.

And then Fallujah kicked off.

These guys went positively fucking nuts. They started really trying to kill people. Larger salvoes, and more of them. We did actually lose a couple of people the first day of it, both Army guys. One guy got killed in his container, still sitting in his chair. Didn’t have time to feel anything. That’s the real thing, not what you tell people to make the families feel better. Nobody likes to think about their little boy or girl, or spouse, or parent writhing in agony and screaming in pain. It’s an unpleasant picture. The other guy was also a case of bad luck; he made it into a bunker, and by a freak chance so did a mortar shell, hitting the inside of the t-wall and spraying through the bunker. He didn’t die until the next day. Our bunkers are better built, so we’d have less to worry about that, but one in a million is still one in a million. A third guy who was a civilian contractor took shrapnel in the neck. Ironically enough, he himself was a medic with another company. He left walking around and talking, and after surgery was reported to be doing okay.

It was an interesting day, to say the least. All sorts of crazy stories and rumors flew around, which I will not go into. I try to keep it to verifiable things, and that’s a significantly smaller percentage out of the total number than you might like. We had constant companions overhead, and lots of folks out checking the perimeter, mostly. It was really disheartening to know the Strykers had just gone out the gate, and a couple of minutes later hearing the IEDs going off. There was a string, must have been 4-5, that all went off about 20 seconds apart. Small arms was going off everywhere all day and night. Some idiot went jogging near the wall early the next morning, and by some incredible chance didn’t get his fool head blown off. Apparently the tower guys only got off a few rounds, so they must have not been trying real hard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We spent the night in one of the Palaces instead of our containers. It’s a good strong building instead of not incredibly solid containers, and it kept us in one location and not dispersed all over camp. At least we seemed to have enough cots and mattresses, between us and about 4 million Turkish subcontractors – and 2 Filipinos. Why is the country the Philippines, but the people are Filipinos? That’s bizarre, but spell check DOES NOT LIE!!! I double-checked with another source, it’s true. It says so on the internet. And of course we have my own innate knowledge of speling, but to be honest I was confused by this simply because I’d never given it much thought, though I did know it was that way. Anyways, to shift gears a bit, it was pretty wild to hear the locals hollering out by the wall. It made me feel safe knowing the tower guys would be twitchy enough to blow anyone away who came too close. They were our protection, in spite of the thin tree line between us and them. As much as it’s prolly a good idea that we aren’t armed, there are times when I’d feel more comfy with my old friend Mr. M-16 and all his variants around. Back in the day, it was just a rifle…but the kids these days have soooo many neat gadgets to put on them! Scopes, flashlights, laser designators, oh my!

Well, we all survived the night, albeit minus some sleep. Tempers flared but nobody beat up anyone else. Nobody came over the wall to slit our throats in our sleep. I woke up to an almost normal world.

That lasted for a few hours, and they gifted us with mortars again several times. Later in the day, a GITW was reported but it was over pretty quickly. Later that night, as we stayed in the MWR Palace yet another night, the airfield reported 2 GITWs but to be honest with you, those are a panicky bunch of nutcases over there, as I would find later. Reality as suggested by military folks was that no one had gotten in, but the die hard worry warts wouldn’t go for it. Whether or not the Albanian commandos have AKs and were firing out of the perimeter made no difference, and was a “cover up.” Crazy, crazy. There were also reports of cats and dogs, living together in the streets. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was quieter in the vicinity of the FOB that night, though there was still a lot of random stuff going off, and quick gunfights in all the familiar places.

The next morning it calmed down again, and we even got to take off our buckets and plates. I hate the new helmet straps – instead of a nice easy strap configuration that comes on and off when you want it to, you actually have to buckle and unbuckle the damn thing now, and there’s like four different straps to adjust. About two hours later I am informed there’s a bird out in 30 minutes that has my name on it. I insta-pack and haul ass down to the helipad, freshly armored up again after such a short break. I am going slightly early, but you take what’s available, especially at a time when transport is apt to be limited.

I am waiting with another guy who came down to our site for some reason or other, and is now going back. I find it incredibly distracting how badly he has adjusted his helmet strap. The damn helmet is sitting cocked on his head at about a 45 degree angle, and the front face strap is set to it’s loosest possible position, resulting in an apparent 6 inches or so of extra strap bowing out from the right side of his head. I want to hit him. When we get on the bird, he sits there with the seat belt straps completely not tightened. I give him the pull gesture, as if I am a Blackhawk Air flight attendant, but he doesn’t get it. I do it for him, with a minimum of nicety; he realizes he is safely strapped to his seat and can no longer move his body except his arms and head. And legs. Pretty much his torso isn’t going anywhere I suppose. He geeks out and takes pictures during the flight. I want to, but must look cool and detached, because you know, I do this all the time. Damn! If there weren’t other military folks on board, I’d do it, but oh well.

Surprisingly enough, we fly waaay around the back side over the desert instead of right over town. Crazy, huh? Smile I get a better look at the fighting positions just outside of town this trip. They are placed seemingly at random, sometimes in really bizarre spots. I see several not on the reverse slope of a hill, but down at the bottom of fairly steep inclines. This creates a low spot to put a vehicle in, but it also exposes the entire top to fire from above. I don’t think the people who dug those positions had any idea what they were doing. I do see a good example of a triangular redoubt position that so much was made of way back in Gulf War I times. No alternate firing positions, and actually pretty small. A tougher nut to crack than the other position, but still what we in the business…oh. I’m out of the business. Anyway, what those who know refer to as a DIP. That’s milspeak for a “Die In Place” position. Also known as a speed bump. “Stay here, shoot at anything you see. I’ll be over there. You won’t see me…but I’ll be there. Trust me!” Of course, this all unfolds much more slowly in writing, but at the time we were going fast, and flying NOTMFE – Nap O’ The Motherfuckin’ Earth! I love that, it’s such a thrill. Low low low, up quick over the wires, stomach drop back to low low low…we go so low a few sheep get caught up in the wheels. They were unharmed though, so I can only suspect this was a highly practiced procedure and these poor sheep would only come to unholy uses and ends later. You’d think these guys were Scots or Kiwis!

Mosul Airfield

All good things must come to an end, and eventually I am standing before HR Travel Boss. I just really can’t stand this guy, because he is all about saying no. I understand that it’s best to hedge your bets, and not promise people anything and be sure they are aware of problems, but he actually told me I should just leave and go back to work. He said they had like 30-40 people needing to get out. What a dick. To flash forward a bit, the next afternoon at 2PM there is a flight to Kuwait that I’d be on, except for a last minute failure of plans. I hate Kuwait, and I’d be on my own dime getting to Dubai, but I had no problem with that. And of course, there’s the fact there were somewhere between 8-10 people leaving on that flight. I really don’t like that guy. His underlings are wonderful and hardworking people though, and they were very nice to me. I always try and avoid that “I just got in, and YOU need to do something special for me over anyone else. I require extra special treatment” because they are confronted by a never ending cycle of people going in and out, and bothering them makes it hard for them to help you. I don’t think they were impressed with Mr. Boss Man either. They kept their eyes downcast a lot when he was in the room, sensing potential situations. “I’m not really here, just busy doing a lot of work” AKA “that’s between yall, please don’t involve me.”

As I alluded to earlier, all sorts of wacky stuff is going on at the airfield. The base tucks right up against the town, with what I’d consider inadequate dead zones between the wall and the people outside. I’d have demolished a bunch of housing, personally. There are also at least two areas with no actual wall, but only a small dead zone with multiple rolls of concertina wire. For those of you not familiar with it, it’s barbed wire’s nasty cousin. It does not, however, do much in the way of stopping bullets, rockets, nor anything else. I see one that I used to drive back and forth in front of – it always made me vaguely nervous. Nice clear field of fire, for both sides. They are just now putting HESCO barriers up. I think I haven’t written about these before, but they are essential giant sandbags. Take a metal frame with some kind of tough material inside it. It stands about 4-6 feet tall, and sometimes you see real big ones with smaller ones on top to make them higher. Inside this material and frame you dump a whole lot of sand or dirt. Big damn sandbag. I’d really hate to be the guy filling those things up, since he’s in the open pretty much the whole time, and not moving very fast. On the other hand, they’ve got significantly more guntrucks than before covering the area.

I have trouble getting in touch with Guli because her cell phone has been cut off for going over the minute limit. They’re pretty punctual about that, if nothing else. There are also problems with the phone at the apartment in Tashkent. The Uzbek phone system is a bit of a shambles, though the cell service is slightly better. We’ve suddenly run into a visa problem for Dubai, and I am not sure if it’s from the Dubai end or the Uzbekistan end. It’s a confusing situation. Apparently single girls under 30 can’t go there anymore, due to it being a popular destination for hookers from former Soviet Republics. I don’t know where it fits into the GDP, but they export a lot of hookers, apparently. I guess they don’t distinguish between young beautiful girls who aren’t hookers, and those who are. It doesn’t seem to matter that I could send some kind of statement saying we are taking a short vacation together and it’s all on the up and up. No joy. Sad Me unhappy.

I make arrangements for Turkey instead. I don’t really want to go there, but it should work. I was looking more for warmth, water, and beach and maybe getting a dive or two in. It will be too cold in Turkey for that. Oh, and my jacket’s back at the Palace. Doh! Eventually I get everything finalized, but it is past the time I can call her to confirm. She’s mentioned going there before, so I’m not worried that the choice of places will be any issue.

The transient housing I get stuck in is awful. The previous occupant disabled the smoke detector and had a smoke fest in here. It floods at the sink and bathroom. The pillow is wet. It is really humid and reeks of mildew and rot. The shower part is…suboptimal. I definitely prefer the Palace — everyone is much less panicky. I think that includes the soldiers too. There’s too much random gunfire, 1 and 2 shots at a time. A legitimate target would rate a few more than that I think. There is also the possibility that we have a few individuals who are, as Mickey Mouse described me so long ago, “a shootin’ motherfucker.” That was one of my prouder moments. In any event, it quiets down more after a couple of hours when people get more settled, though there are still occasional legitimate gunfights that break out. I don’t much worry about them. There isn’t anything you can do, and at least we have t-walls up around this compound. There may be breaks in the outer wall, but the only rounds coming in here will be ricochets or ones that are way long and arc in, in additional to the idiot potential of having them start and end their flight inside the perimeter. Tain’t nothing you can do about that anyways, so worrying doesn’t do any good.

The next morning I start early trying to get back in touch with Guli. With phone problems, I am left with only email. I fret a bit. Eventually we do get some talking in, via email and using her neighbor’s phone. Turkey’s okay…only due to holidays and them canceling the easy visa on arrival route, it will be another 4-5 days before she can get there. That’s too long, since this is not a paid R&R for me, and I don’t want to hang around by myself for several days before she can get there. They don’t seem to do expedited processing. I find out I’m on a bird at 2PM to Kuwait, where I will not have much ability to do any arranging of things, much less coordinating movements across multiple nations. During the back and forth she puts up Moscow as an option. She doesn’t need a visa to go there. Oops! I do though, plus it’s definitely nothing cheap there. The clock ticks down…I make the call. I’m going to cut the losses and head back to the Palace. If we had just a couple of more days, we could have come up with something, or delayed my departure a few days until we could come up with something before I left. This well and truly sucks, but nobody did anything wrong. The company didn’t screw me, she did her part, and I did my part…but we got sucker punched 8 ways to Sunday by fate and circumstance. It would have been easier if I had somebody to be pissed off at about the whole thing, but it was just plain old bad luck and timing. I become well and truly depressed.

I decide to stay in the hooch tonight. I had been planning to go to chow later, since I’m not very sociable right now. I’m sure people have been killed by their prudence; however I am also sure many times more have been killed due to a lack of it. I just go nowhere and wallow in my disappointment. I had so been looking forward to getting out and seeing her, if only for a while.

The speakers for the closest / loudest mosque have some kind of problem. I don’t know if they are cheap, busted, or what exactly, but it gives a kind of echo that sounds odd. It kind of sounds like a crowded of football hooligans singing a fight song. Which I guess in effect it can be. Often you’d get the last words of the call to prayer ringing out into silence, followed by a bang as an added “amen” somewhere. Lately though, they’ve been less respectful and have actually been interrupting it. Umm…wow. This is what I was trying to say earlier when I so rudely interrupted myself there at the beginning. I thought this all sounded familiar! Not the sound quality part, but the amen bit, I mean. I hope you continue to be fooled into thinking I am not stupid, dear reader!

So anyway, in my depression, I crawl under the sleeping bag and get all comfy with my pillow, which is still moist from the condensation. I hate just about everything about the airfield and don’t like to be there. I lay there in the darkness, with only a bit of light reading in my Russian grammar book to counterbalance the disappointment. It doesn’t work very well. I am afraid I will get stuck here for several days like poor George, who came in to get an ID card replaced and has been trapped here four days trying to get back.

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