One thing I haven't talked about yet is an important aspect of our mission that the families and friends can actually help with. The 167th CSG has several villages that we are assisting (we are continuing the great work that the 64th CSG has started). We are helping to build and/or improve schools, get basic supplies to families and attempting to help some very poor communities. I am talking dirt poor. One community has a mud hut for a school.
A few people who deserve special mention are the "S5 Shop" (Civil Affairs). They are leading up the Group's humanitarian effort. The Colonel and I went with them on 26 March 2004 and we visited several of the local villages. This mission was to distribute water and personal hygiene items such as soap, toothpaste and shampoo that the people can't get. First of all, of the villages that we visited today, not one has access to clean water. They all have to drink contaminated water from the Tigris River. Water is such a huge problem over here that it is hard not to be stampeded when we try to distribute it. Something we take for granted in the states - we just turn on the faucet. Over here, water is not taken for granted. The Iraqis just don't have clean water.
The first few villages we visited were actually Bedouin squatters who moved into a destroyed Republican Guard base after the fall of the former regime. A lot of the buildings are partially destroyed. None of the buildings have glass in the windows anymore, no running water and if they have electricity, it is because somebody climbed up the power line and spliced a wire into it and back to their building. You can see that they use plastic bags as insulators in the electrical work. Some of the wires are spliced in the middle and look like they tied cloth around the splice. Many of the children do not have shoes and none have socks. A lot of money has recently been put in the school by the U.S., but you would still be appalled at the conditions. There is no working plumbing (the septic system is broken). The restrooms are "Eastern style" toilets (i.e., a hole in the floor) and feces is just sitting in piles in the stalls on the floor. The classrooms are just wooden desks and a chalk board. People keep breaking in and stealing things (there is presently no electricity because people stole the wiring to sell for the copper). This is one of the better schools in the area.
We stopped at a Bedouin family's tent to deliver some water and hygiene items. They have a two week old baby and let several of us hold the baby and get pictures.
I'm not sure how many kids they actually had, but there were about 15 or so swarming our soldiers. They all know the word "mister" (pronounced "mistah!") and some know a few English words (such as "rock on" - I guess the Americans had been there before). Their food is cooked in a hole in the ground inside the tent. They were very nice people and let the soldiers ride their donkey and a camel. When you looked at the contents of the tent, this family was dirt poor. They didn't have much in the way of possessions. But the weird thing was that they had a satellite dish and a TV (run from a small generator, I guess). The TV was on the ground next to the cooking area and they sit on rugs and watch TV in their tent.
At the next stop, a small group of clay huts, there was a young boy (maybe 6) who had broken his left arm 25 days ago.
The family had dressed the wound and put the entire arm in a plastic bag (not good). The boy had not been to a hospital and had not seen any type of doctor or medical person. Who knows how long it had been since the dressing had been changed. One of our combat lifesavers (a soldier who receives further emergency medical training) wanted to change the dressing and assess the wound. When he removed the plastic bag and bandage, a large amount of puss spilled on the hood of the Humvee and by the horrible smell, we could tell that the boy had a massive infection. A few of our soldiers got sick when the old dressing came off. The wound was infested with maggots (it was a compound fracture, meaning the when the arm broke, the broken bone had popped through the skin, creating an open wound). The arm was swollen and discolored (probably from the infection) and the boy is unable to move his thumb and appears to be losing feeling in the arm. Our combat lifesaver did the best he could to clean the wound and put on a splint and sterile dressing, but this boy's needs were far beyond our capabilities. I suspect that gangrene has set in. It is quite possible that even with immediate medical attention, the boy will lose the arm. If he doesn't get to a hospital quickly, he may not survive the infection. I have attached a picture of the boy having his dressing changed by the combat lifesaver (from the 835th CSB - one of our units). I'm holding his right hand so that he wouldn't try to fight us, but he was very stoic and hardly moved while the wound was cleaned and redressed. This boy's plight was very disturbing to many of our soldiers. We wanted to do more, but all we could do was beg the father to take the boy to a doctor. Through the translator, we implored the father to get the boy to a hospital immediately. One of the locals who has a car offered to drive the boy to the hospital in Tikrit the next day. I sure hope that the father does this.
One of the villages we stopped at was actually all one family. I understand that the patriarch has ten wives and a hundred kids. And I thought my two nephews were a handful. A hundred kids?? Well, I can attest that I saw scores of kids swarming around our soldiers. But they were moving too fast for me to get an accurate count. Unbelievable.
Our last stop of the day was a larger village and distributing water and supplies was a real challenge. Everybody wanted water and there just wasn't enough to go around. Most of the supplies we secured in the school building so that the village elders can distribute it. But we also wanted to help get some water and supplies out to the people there. Possibly a mistake, but in the end, we were able to safely distribute a lot of water and supplies. We did our best to make sure that we gave water and toothpaste to as many of the young kids as possible.
Was the day uplifting or depressing? Yes. It felt great to be out there helping these destitute people and I think our soldiers felt very good about the work we did. But we all know that we didn't even scratch the surface. The conditions that these children live in are haunting.
The humanitarian mission that the 167th CSG soldiers are doing serves several purposes. One is strictly humanitarian. It is the right thing to do to get schools built for these innocent kids who have nothing to do with the mess that all the adults have made. Many (most) of these kids do not even own any underwear or socks. Another good reason is that the more the Iraqi citizens see that we are helping them, the more they are likely to dime out the bad guys who are setting up IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) on the side of the roads - or the less likely they are to set them up themselves.
You've probably read in the news that it's been getting hotter over here - both the weather and enemy activity. There has been a great deal of military activity reported in the news, especially in the areas of Al Fallujah and Al Ramadi (not in our immediate area). Up here at Speicher we have had a few recent incidents. On April 7, 2004 there were two more indirect fire attacks on FOB Speicher. (Indirect fire is an attack by weapons such as mortars or rockets where the shooter can't see what they are shooting at.) There were no injuries or damage from either attack. The patrols outside the wire captured some personnel and weapons which we believe may have been related to the attack. Hopefully this will have an effect on the enemy's ability to lob this stuff at us for a while.
On April 6, 2004, one of our humanitarian missions in a village came under attack from an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade). This is a shoulder fired weapon that fires a grenade for moderate distances. Nobody was hurt in the attack, but the incident is obviously of great concern to the families. Three troops from HHC 167th were on the mission with several troops from the 835th CSB, one of our subordinate Battalions. The mission was to do an assessment on some schools in a village to see what assistance and work they need. The bad guys took one shot with the RPG which missed our vehicles and troops and impacted on a wall nearby. Our troops returned fire, but the enemy fled the area in a car. The whole convoy returned safely to FOB Speicher.
Among all this bad news you have been hearing, there is some good news. On 28 March 2004, we went back to the village to check up on the Bedouin boy who had broken his arm (the one I told you about in the last letter). We wanted to make sure that his family had taken him to the hospital in Tikrit. If not, we were going to try to convince them to come to Speicher as we had arranged for the Army doctors to see him. There was no way to contact him or his family ahead of time (no phones), so we convoyed out to the village in the morning. It was actually a lot easier to find the boy than we had thought (I had printed up his picture in case we had to show it around). We found him and his family right away. They had not brought him to the hospital in Tikrit. After some discussion with the translator, the boy's father agreed to let us bring him and the boy to FOB Speicher and get seen by the Army doctors. We found out through the translator that the boy had fallen from a donkey about a month ago and that is how he broke his arm.
The boy's arm looked a lot better. The swelling was down a bit, the color looked better and the horrible smell was gone. We learned something of Bedouin medicine from our translator. When the boy broke his arm, the "cure" for a broken bone was apparently to tie a fish to his arm with some cloth strips and place the arm in the plastic bag. (Yes, I said fish, like the kind that swims in the Tigris River). The fish, after a month in a hot plastic bag, made the arm look and smell a lot worse than it really was. We put the boy and his father in a Humvee. Some of our soldiers had prepared a bag of goodies to give to the boy, so he had a lollipop and other candy for the ride in. (I sure hope he was one of the kids who got a tube of toothpaste from us.) Neither the boy, nor his father spoke a word of English. The boy was obviously very nervous. His family doesn't own a vehicle (unless you count the donkey), and he had probably rarely, if ever, ridden in a car. Now he was in a military convoy with weapons pointed out every window, heading to a U.S. Forward Operating Base. I guess I'd have been nervous too.
We met a military ambulance at the gate, loaded the boy and his father on the ambulance with the translator and a guard, and then followed the ambulance to the base hospital. They x-rayed the arm, treated the wound and cleaned it up. The prognosis is that the boy will keep his arm and will be okay. However, he will permanently lose some mobility in his arm and possibly his wrist. According to the doctor, his arm was broken above the elbow and the bones healed wrong. As a result, a piece of bone is protruding out toward the elbow (when fully healed, it will appear almost as if he has two elbows). It would require some extensive surgery to correct, and that type of surgery is not available in Iraq. The doctors gave the boy and his father some physical therapy exercises to do to try and increase the mobility of the arm. I don't have a high degree of confidence that they will take this seriously.
On March 29, 2004 several of us had to go south for a few days to Ballad and Baghdad. Between Tikrit and Samarra, there is an area where on both sides of the road, local fishermen sell huge carp out of the Tigris River. They have metal pans (the same kind of metal pans that mechanics us to change oil) filled with fish. Some have canvas on top of them, but when you drive by, you can see these large fish (I'm talking about the size of a large cat or a small dog) and somebody standing there waiting to sell them. Sometimes there will be a car pulled up and a local haggling with the fisherman over the price. I'm not so sure that I'd want to eat one of these carp, but the XO was served one at the house of a local Sheik a while back and he's still pretty normal.
Coming back from Baghdad, just to the north of the city, there is a huge garbage dump. It spans for a mile or two along the road and as far back as the eye can see. I don't know if it is an "official landfill" or not. It's disgusting. Piles of garbage as far as the eye can see. Plumes of smoke drift up from various places where the garbage is on fire, everywhere plastic bags and piles of garbage. Shacks that people live in are sprinkled all throughout the dump and children are playing in pools of standing water. I saw women washing clothes in some of the water pools, surrounded by piles of garbage. It is amazing that families actually live in a garbage dump, but there they are there every time we pass it. It really makes me appreciate my old apartment in Queens. I guess I didn't have it as bad as I thought at the time. But I did finally figure out where plastic bags come from. They grow on all these little bushes by the side of the road. Each little piece of scrub brush has between one the three plastic bags growing on them. Somebody must come by every once in a while, harvest the bags and sell them to 7-Eleven.
Ergonomics violations (note to OSHA - I want to file a complaint): If you ride in the front passenger seat of a Humvee going down the MSR, you actually sit sideways on the seat, back toward the driver, so that you can scan out the side window for trouble. (MSR - that's another great Army acronym for Main Supply Route. Don't think for a minute that we are going to use a simple word like "road" or "Street.") The best way to do this is to rest your back against the radio mount (the SAPI plate in your body armor makes a field expedient backrest) and just lean back on it. Your right leg tends to fall asleep as you sitting sideways, looking out the side window. Try it sometime in your Honda Accord. You'll see what I mean. We do wear our seatbelts, so just figure that into the comfort factor also. You also are gripping your weapon and have a radio headset (looks like a small telephone receiver) stuffed under your helmet because it's impossible to hear the speaker when you're rolling down the highway - oops, I mean MSR - with all the windows down. In fact, in most of the vehicles we took off the old canvas doors and replaced them with steel "doors" that some of our mechanics torched out of large sheets of steel. Most of us prefer steel to canvas out here. After several hours of sitting sideways, knee into the steel door, back into the radio mount, gripping your 9MM or M-16, and having to pee really badly from all the water you've been drinking (no, we don't stop), you get a little tired, sore and cranky.
Some of us went to Mosul from April 4-7 2004 to visit units up there (the 167th has a battalion - the 44th CSB - up there). This was a great gig for the troops who went with us (i.e., the drivers and gun truck crews) because there are some pretty neat things to see up at the FOB in Mosul. They have several Iraqi restaurants on post, and while they may not be much to look at, they are something different than the dining facility (Army Acronym: DFAC). They serve local food, and the menus are fun to read because they can't spell. You can have "Grilled Lamp" or "Chicken Fried Kentucky." The food is excellent and they give you a lot of it. I highly recommend the "Grilled Lamp" to any of you who ever find your way to Mosul. It tastes very much like lamb. Our drivers and gun trucks got some time off to enjoy these things while the Colonel and I went around to the units and the staff worked with their counterparts on missions.
There are also some pretty neat gift shops (run by local Iraqis) inside the wire for the troops. They sell everything from rugs, DVDs, electronics gear, clothes, cigars, leather camels and other souvenirs. Please don't tell my wife that I'm thinking about buying another leather camel to go next to my first one on our bookshelves. We are trying to do some similar things at FOB Speicher (gift shops and restaurants) but it's going to take a while to get them up and running. They have a coffee shop at Mosul and they serve both coffee and fruit drinks. They whip the coffee and it has foam on the top. After having a cup, I was wired all day.
We flew by Black Hawk to a base on the border of Turkey and Iraq to see the operations up there. We had the drivers and gun truck crews on the helicopters with us and they had a blast. For many of them, it was their first ride on a helicopter. The flight was about 45 minutes each way and the landscape in northern Iraq is breathtaking. This part of the country has foothills and mountains (and of course, sheep). We flew over some reservoirs or lakes (I've never quite understood the difference) and there were people in small fishing boats. Most of the people waved at the helicopters as few flew by. We flew very low, so they could probably see us waving back. As we would fly over a herd of sheep, it was really fun to watch the dogs chase after the helicopters' shadows. Some of them would run full out for a great distance before they gave up and returned to their shepherding duties.
Another thing we have been seeing a lot of lately are Saddam's former tanks. There are many old burned out tanks by the sides of the MSRs all over this country. Some have the turrets blown off; some of these tanks are actually overturned. It's amazing to think that our missiles can actually flip a tank over. I guess that's the "shock and awe" part. We have seen truckloads and truckloads of old rusted out, blown up tanks being hauled out on trucks, presumably to scrap metal yards.
On 7 April 2004, as our convoy was returning from Mosul, we saw a donkey standing in the road. Not something that you see every day. There are two southbound lanes in that area (this is not to say that the Iraqis always drive south in the southbound lanes...) and just standing in the road, a donkey watched us as we changed lanes to drive around him. I really wish I could have taken a picture of the gun truck in front of our Humvee passing this donkey. The scene just summed it all up. We see a lot of sheep and sometimes they are grazing in the median between the northbound and southbound lanes. Unfortunately, you see a lot of sheep and dogs by the side of the road that were not quick enough. No need to get graphic here, you get the picture. "Granite 7"
Michael Mabee Command Sergeant Major 167th Corps Support Group Tikrit, Iraq
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