Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Vest

Composite-stacked ceramic
And boron carbide,
Produced in flawless stacks,
Set in ballistic nylon,
Wrapped in bit-mapped camouflage. 
            Hand-molded plastic explosive,
            Finger-dented green/gray clay.
            Strips of duct tape torn on teeth,
            Scavenged wires,
            A nine-volt battery.
It is 35-pounds.
Add MOLLE pouches of
220 rounds 5.56 mm ball,
PVS-14 Night vision device,
Tactical LED flashlight,
Two PowerBars,
A St. Christopher medal.
The trauma plate
Clamped tight
Across a throbbing heart.
            18.21 kilos,
            Of economic explosive power,
            Chock with steel ball bearings,
            Rusted nails,
            A Minnie Mouse keychain
            Thrown in as a joke.
            Shaking wires are inserted
            Into the terminals
            Of the battery
            Hung between supple shoulder blades.
Add Rules of Engagement card,
Geneva Convention booklet,
Improvised Explosive Device ID pamphlet,
And omnipresent scrutiny
Of camera lenses, videophones, and
Ever-swarming blogosphere.
            Weighed with the severity of ancestry,
            The aegis of millennia,
            The densities of generations of
            Faith and righteousness,
            It seeks direct hits
            On newsprint across the globe.
The product of science,
Of industry, of modern innovation,
And limitless American funding.
It sails through Congressional budgets
Employs flag-toting constituents,
And stops AK-47 rounds
At point-blank range.
            An assemblage of
            Time-honed utility:
            Iranian plastique,
            A bastardized remote control.
            It costs two $100 USD bills,
            A few dinar,
            Years of refracted faith,
            And the unwavering word of Allah.
It is the best in the world
At what it does.
            It is the best in the world
            At what it does.           
But it is useless in fire,
Defenseless against concussion,
And cannot check human will.
            But it is vulnerable,
            To both wavering faith
            And faulty soldering.
Every day shield
A rock of security,
Defender of organs and arteries,
It is his home away from home
Away from home.
Guardian, defender,
Resistor of steel-jacket projectiles
And flying shredded steel,
One vehicle of many
To take him far back home.
            It is both accomplishment,
            And accomplice.
            A pinnacle;
            The achievement of study,
            Devotion and trial.
            The key to Jannah,
            His vessel to salvation;
            Virgin maidens,
            Beautiful mansions,
            And the favor of Allah.
It is technology
            It is finality
It is power projected
            It is faith absolute
It is his savior
            It is his conduit

It is his ticket out

Of dead-end jobs

Of street corner cigarettes.
And now it walks the dusted streets of Ba’qubah

Searching for culmination.

The Dude

A charred filet of man is lodged
Under the smoke discharger.

There are seared nuggets of him
Wedged into the grill.

There are random other chunks and streaks
All over the truck;
A hairy sliver slapped into
The cupola gearing,
Something dark and meaty
Mashed across the rivets
Around the bullet-proof glass,
His fats and oils smeared
Across the windshield.

The meager wipers
Only smear it around
While the dribble of wiper fluid
Just beads and runs off of him.

He was walking down the sidewalk
When the car bomb hit.
Rigged artillery rounds ripped the taxi
Into flying shrapnel,
Twisted hunks of steel
Screamed through the air
Tore him in half.

His torso exploded across the windshield
Legs evaporated,
Into small
Charred pieces.

Was he an insurgent
With bad timing?
Was he the signal man?
Was he an agitator, a recruiter, a sympathizer? 
Was he strolling back to work at the market
After a midday prayer?
Was he a cobbler, a mechanic, a father of three?
I don’t know those things.

But now,
It’s hard to see the road through him.

And he’s starting to reek;
His bits baking and broiling
On the skillet-hot, sun-baked steel
Of these 120-degree days.
It stinks of rot,
Of rancid human oils
Of shit and piss and brains –
All so quickly diced, flash-fried,
Pureed, then evenly spread
Across this armored truck.

We drive together,
The Dude and I,
As the wind catches just right;
Floating through the open gunner’s cupola
And filling my nose.
I breathe in the stink
Of rotting, baking human flesh.
I breathe in The Dude.

Who informed his family?
Who picked up his legs
From the yard they landed in?
What grief counselor talked
To the little boy that found his foot?

At least we named him,
However generic ‘The Dude’ is.
The little girl,
The one with half her head blown away,
The one who asked us for candy at the police station
But now lies face down in the street,
Eyes and mouth agape,
We couldn’t even bare
To give her a name.

My hand aches.

My hand aches because
My hand is empty. 

My hand misses the feel,
The weight,
The finality. 

My hand misses the ominous grip,
Designed by thoughtful engineers,
Allowing the quick reach of a finger
Onto the trigger,
The steadying sister hand wrapped around the fore-grip,
My cheek welded to the stock,
My eyes searching
Through the site posts
For a target,
For center mass. 

My hand is hungry. 
Hungry to touch again the steel 
The aluminum 
The plastics
The power - and the glory.

My hand is hungry, 
Hungry for the pull of its fingertip on the trigger that leads to the hammer that releases the bolt that drives the pin into the primer that leads to the explosion of powder in the chamber;
The 556 round flying, a ripping six-grove, right-handed spin, exploding from the barrel upon a wave of fiery gas...
That leads to the chest erupting.
That leads to the ruptured, cavernous exit wound. 
That leads to the skull coming apart
In chunks. 

My aching hand has me
Clearing my living room
Hunting at bars
Sizing up distances and windage
On the lone figure in the distance,
Look for a kill shot. 

My hand misses its weapon.
That weapon pressed into it
By drill sergeants and NCO's.
The weapon locked to it
By training and exercises,
By repetition
By muscle memory. 
My hand misses its weapon,
The one welded into it
Every day for a long, hot, dangerous year,
The weapon
Branded into it,
Branded into the flesh of my hand,
And the grooves of memory,
For life. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It’s Just a Hat…. Or Is It?

Last Saturday night, me, Sally and several friends and family went to a Reds baseball game. Because it was my brother-in-law’s birthday and Father’s Day the next day, we decided to spring for some good seats. These ones allowed access to a sort of gourmet cafeteria area with stations filled with good food and a cash bar.

Upon entering this room, I immediately noticed a 35-or-so year old guy wearing a USMC boonie cap, one of the new ones in the digitized camo pattern.

As a vet (albeit one that was Army, not Marines), my immediate reaction was that I wanted to go over to the guy, introduce myself and ask him when/where he served. But I also wouldn’t want to interrupt someone at a game like this and tried to value the guy’s privacy, so I held off. [Note to self #1, he was wearing the cap indoors. This should have been my first tip off, even if he was dressed in civies.]

When the national anthem came on, I noticed he had taken the hat off, was at attention and had his hand over his heart, doing the ‘right thing’. 'Cool,' I thought.

As the game started and went through its progression of innings, I would spot the guy (actually the hat) and sort of battled internally about going up to him, or just minding my own business. I kept opting for the later.

At one point, I passed by the guy and noticed that he was somewhat slack-jawed and rubber-lipped, and just generally got a bad vibe from him. Now, I don’t care what anyone looks like (especially if they were a former Marine), but the military makes you pretty good at immediately sizing people up. Actually, it makes you very good at just not ignoring those feelings you get about someone not being quite ‘there’ or being sort of ‘out of it’ and immediately acting upon those feelings. Because while those feelings might not mean too much in the civilian world, they can mean life and death when you have to depend on someone’s actions in a combat zone. [Note to self #2: never again ignore it when you get the feeling that someone is a total ‘POS’.]

As the game wound down though, I found Sally and her sister at an outdoor bar, about mid-way up the stadium, looking down at the first base line. As we were chatting, I saw that Boonie Cap was sitting just below the bar and I mentioned that I should go up at chat with him.

Sally noted that they’d already been talking to him and that he was never in the Marines. I was sort of taken aback, because you generally just don’t see someone wearing Marines’ gear, especially modern stuff like the digitized boonie cap, unless they’d actually been a Marine. Further, he apparently said he’d never join the military these days because it was ‘anautomatic death sentence’ and then added something about how his wife doesn’t like him to drink anymore, or even leave the house.

Now, the Marines make a lot of boonie caps, and they give them out to a lot of Marines, both good ones and bad ones, hard-core recon guys all the way down to POG (‘Person Other than Grunt’ – rear echelon soldiers) finance guys. And Marines come and go out of the Corps, so those caps become surplus and anyone could buy one. But you just don’t… I just don’t… ever see anyone wearing something like that unless they were actually a Marine.
I immediately said to Sally, “He shouldn’t be wearing that cover.”

Seeing ‘that look’ in my eye, Sally immediately said, “Let it go Chris.”

Once again failing to heed Sally's good advice, I immediately walked over to the railing edge, leaned down to, and said to the guy, “Hey buddy, you really shouldn’t be wearing that hat.”

“What? Why not?” he replied.

“You weren’t a Marine, so you shouldn’t be wearing that hat.”

He was with four or five others and they immediately started to chime in. In the din, I could pick out his voice, saying things about how he’d wear whatever he liked.

I repeated sternly, “You weren’t a Marine, you shouldn’t wear that hat.”

His voice, which sounded a LOT like Bill Paxton’s character in Aliens, whiny with a touch of southern drawl, piped up, “Hey buddy, I’ll have you know that I bought this hat at a yard sale for 50 cents. 50 cents! They guy who had it didn’t even want it and he sold it to me for 50 CENTS!”

Now, here Rubber Lips had a point. The hat is surplus, just a piece of cloth with some grommets and other stuff stitched into it. Oh, and a USMC globe and anchor emblem on the front. That’s all. The guy who’d been issued it sold it at a yard sale, and now it was, in fact, Rubber Lips’ property, which he could wear or not.

At this point too, I believe Sally was pulling on my arm saying repeatedly, “Chris, let it GO.”

Now, anyone who knows me (and no one knows me better than Sally) knows I’m not really that great at letting things go. So – unwisely, I’ll admit – I continued to stay at the railing.
“I don’t give a [frig], you weren’t a Marine, and you shouldn’t be wearing that hat.”

Rubber Lips said, “Sir, were you a serviceman?” [Side note, he said ‘serviceman’. What is this 1942?]

“Yes, I was.”

“Well, I thank you for your service but you can’t come up here and tell me…” At this point, his voice was sort of lost amidst the additional shouts and comments of his friends, plus me repeating over and over again that he shouldn’t be wearing that [frigging] hat.

Sally finally pulled me away and back to the bar. She was, of course, disappointed and embarrassed, and gave me her worst, ‘What the [frig] where you DOING!?!?!’ look. It’s a good one by the way, as Sally is outstanding at these sort of looks (which are, most often, directed at me). It’s a very strong look, with laser beam eyes that won’t look away, until she gives you this very dismissive sort of ‘slow blink’ and then looks away in this state of near absolute disgust.

It would not be the last time she gave me this look that night.

I turned back to the bar, and started to take my spousal lashings from Sally. Suddenly Rubber Lips appeared, hat in hand.

“You know what,” he says, “I’ll give you my hat if I can just get my 50 cents back.”

“Great man,” I replied as I dug into my wallet. “Tell you what, I’ll double your money. Here’s a buck.”

Rubber Lips took the dollar, handed me the boonie hat, and walked away, as I added, “Thanks, you did the right thing!”

I folded up the hat, put it in my pocket, and started to think of ways to destroy the hat so that it would never end up sitting upon the dome of another Rubber Lips.

I felt good, like I’d righted some wrong in the world, however tiny and inconsequential it might have been in the grand scheme of things.

But, my good feeling was short-lived, as Rubber Lips soon returned.

“You know what, I changed my mind. I want the hat back. My wife gave me that hat.”

“You said you bought it at a yard sale.”

“No, my wife gave me that hat. I can’t go home without that hat. Here’s your dollar back.” He slapped my buck back on the bar.

“No sale,” I said. “The hat is mine. I bought it off you. All sales are final.”

Rubber Lips wasn’t budging. “My wife gave me that hat, my WIFE. I can’t go home without that hat. It was a gift. I want it back.”

“It was 50 cents! Why do you care? I’m not giving you the hat.”

This went on for a bit, with Sally occasionally chiming in, “CHRIS! Just give him back the HAT!”

Finally, Rubber Lips says, “Look, you can call my wife, her name is Tiffany. You can ask her about the hat.” He pulls out his Blackberry, dials a number, and hands me the phone. I look down, see that it’s ringing ‘Tiffany’ and waited.

A woman picked up, I said hello, introduced myself, and then started to tell her what’s going on. Just about the time that I finish up my tale, just as I’m about to ask her, ‘So, do you really care if I keep this hat or not?,’ Rubber Lips dives past Sally, grabs my shorts, and reaches for my pocket. I was still holding his phone, so could only spin my hips a bit and use my one free hand to try to block him, but he reached in with both hands, and yanked the hat out of my pocket.

My thought process here was something like: ‘[Frigging] bastard! MY hat. His phone – in my hand…’

My response was automatic.

It was inspired.

It was deliberate.

It was… really, really stupid.

I spun toward the field, and hucked Rubber Lips’ crappy Blackberry off the middle deck of ‘Great American Ballpark’, toward the field below. It’s a beautiful sight, you know, a little spinning Blackberry, momentarily sparkling under the stadium lights, as it speeds toward its doom, finally dropping below the railing toward the seats below…

Although somewhat elated (momentarily absolutely psyched, actually), I immediately was filled with regret; ‘Oh crap, there are people down there. I could have just hit someone with a spinning Blackberry doing about 25 mph.’

Rubber Lips’ lips were hung open. “You just threw ma phone!”

“Yep. Sure did. Buh-bye.”

He repeated, “You just threw ma phone!”

About this time, Sally surely said something like “CHRIS CHESAK, what did you just DO!?!?!”

My reply was wise, insightful, and illuminating, “I [friggin’] chucked his phone.”

“You threw ma phone!”


About this time, a woman from security came up screaming, “All right, that’s it!!! You two stay right there, DON’T MOVE!!!” She then got on her radio and started to call a cop.

I nonchalantly leaned up against the bar and said, “Hey, I’m cool. I’m not going anywhere.”

Rubber Lips meanwhile had to fill his friends on what just happened, “He threw ma phone!” and then peppered me with a variety of disinformation;

“That’s a FOUR HUNDRED DOLLAR phone!”

“Yer gonna PAY for that, man! I'm gonna SUE you!”

“You hit a kid man, A KID! He’s down there, all wrapped up in bandages, all bleeding everywhere. How do you feel about yourself now?”

Meanwhile, a young patrolman showed up and started taking down everyone’s story. I told my story, identified myself as a vet, and was completely factual (to the best of my ability), polite, and respectful to the young officer, even if he did miss the point here (assuming I actually had one really): When I mentioned that Rubber Lips shouldn’t have been wearing the hat, the young cop said, “What’s the big deal about the hat? You’d wear a Reds hat, but you aren’t on the team are you?”

I said, “Actually officer, I wouldn’t wear a Reds hat [Because I’m a Red Sox fan.], but I see your point.” [In hindsight, I should have said, ‘Officer, how would you feel if you saw someone at a game like this wearing a Cincinnati PD hat? Or maybe an actual badge, just because it’s ‘cool’?].

When the officer mentioned the phone, I immediately offered to pay for it. I owned up. After all, I’d chucked this dude’s phone off the stadium. No blame, no lie, no excuse: it was ME that chucked his phone. I also mentioned, very honestly, that I was absolutely mortified at the fact that someone could have been hurt. [Luckily, this altercation came in the ninth inning of a 4-0 loss to the Blue Jays, so most fans had already shuffled on out of the stadium.]

At some point in all this, the patrolman went to talk to Rubber Lips, who – just for effect for sure – was wearing the frigging boonie hat (and did the whole time). Now, had this gone to an actual court, that hat would be mine. He sold it to me fare and square. He set a price, we agreed to terms, and had a financial transaction. That hat was mine.

But, somewhere in there, while I was being all cool and all, Rubber Lips burst out at me, “That’s a FOUR HUNDRED DOLLAR PHONE, man! I’ve got a wife and kids to go home to, two kids! You know what that’s LIKE!?!?!”

As his little tirade continued, I kept my cool, thinking about how yes, I have two kids too, and one was actually born the night I flew into Iraq and I didn’t get to know her until she was 11 months old, and all sorts of quippy, hip, chilling burns to hit this moron with. But, as my temperature again started to rise, and he droned on further, I blew up with a simple, yet effective, “Yeah, you ever been to IRAQ!?!?! You know what THAT’S LIKE?!?!?”

The patrolman kindly settled everyone back down, and I slipped back into cool mode.

Soon after, the patrolman introduced me to his boss, a police lieutenant in plainclothes, and HIS boss, who was presumably a captain then, also in plainclothes.

The lieutenant got both stories, checked them with both of us, and then told us what was going down. I never once looked at Rubber Lips, but just stayed focused on the LT, respectfully responding to his questions. Bottom line, he said I was wrong for chucking a phone off the stadium (duh) but that Rubber Lips was wrong for coming at me and grabbing me (hello, assault – not to mention theft of the hat that I had purchased) but that he would both let us off since we were both wrong.

He then instructed the young patrolman to go with Rubber Lips to go find his phone and see if it was ‘okay’ (yeah… no chance in hell).

With Rubber Lips gone, the LT (and the captain) sort of started to joke around about the phone’s condition. And then the LT sort of let it be known that they’d be showing Rubber Lips out of the stadium from down in the lower deck. We were then free to go.
So… we did.

And I have to think that – I have to hope that – at the least, Rubber Lips will think twice about ever wearing that hat again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To my boys in the 116th (on the eve of their redeployment):

- May the days pass quickly

- May the poo water never touch your boots (and certainly not crash over your gunners)

- May the wind be at your backs and the various and sundry smells be downwind

- May your Internet connections be strong and uninterrupted

- May your Kevlar, SAPI plates, and other armors be both thick and in all the right places at the right times

- May your care packages arrive often and each be a cornucopia of goodness

- May you have plenty of time to further memorize more Will Farrell movies

- May you find a way to have a beer here/there

- May your emails and letters from home always bear good news

- And may your deity of choice always be by your side.

Good luck and godspeed gents...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Items to send troops overseas

Recently I've been asked by various people for ideas of just what items to send troops overseas. I thought I would pull these lists together and post them online. Hopefully someone gets some better ideas of just what to send troops, items that will actually boost their morale, instead of reminding them that people at home have no idea what they are going through...

First, contrary to most lists that come from Family Readiness Groups, old veteran's organizations, and some unknown REMF somewhere, DO NOT send jerky and DO NOT sent toiletries - unless you know for sure that the guys you are sending it to are on some platoon-sized patrol base on a hilltop in The 'Stan (and believe me, they probably aren't - and if they are, they aren't getting your package...).

Second, don't send junk. Don't send cheap stuff, especially stuff that has 'Discounted!' and 'Reduced for Quick Sale!' stickers on it. That makes guys feel like crap and makes them think that 1. You don't really care that much about them or what they are doing over there and 2. That you are just offloading old stuff on them. Definitely NOT a morale booster (the opposite really).

My specific comments below (from a list that a friend of mine got at their work - a sadly misguided list however):
  • Beef Jerky/Slim Jims – DON'T DO IT! We were gagging at the site of jerky by the second or third month.
  • Flavored Coffee/Creamers – Sure. Better still, send really good coffee. There are also some flavored coffees that come in self-contained, self-heating cans. Those are great if you can find them. Hot chocolate can come in handy for those few non-coffee drinkers over there too (I know, I was one of the few...).
  • Individual Powdered Drink Mixes [Propel, Crystal Light, Etc.] – Yeah, not so much. Generally plenty of this stuff around.
  • BBQ/Tabasco Sauce/Salt & Pepper – This is really a good idea, but send GOOD hot sauces, not Tabasco. Salt & Pepper though is a total NO GO. After all, why? Salt and Pepper (and Tabasco) comes in the MRE's.
  • Frank’s Hot Sauce/Spicy Mustard – Yes, but again: send GOOD stuff, like unique flavored hot or other flavored sauces (my guys from Idaho loved getting 'Some Dude's Fry Sauce' for example, or how about spicy Thai or a curry sauce - something to spice up their usual bland fare).
  • Individual Can Soups/Chili/Tuna – These won’t get eaten. If you are going to send something like this though, find the pouches of tuna (not cans) that are flavored.
  • Individual Can Fruit Snacks – Eh... Most of these guys won't eat 'em.
  • Crackers/Cheese Spread/Velveeta – Sure, why not.
  • Small Bags Peanuts/Sunflower Seeds – SEND LOTS OF SUNFLOWER SEEDS. Some guys are totally addicted to them, and, as always, feel free to get the flavored ones. And nuts are generally a good idea, as they are a great power food, always tasty, and are generally salted to replace electrolytes lost while sweating in the 120+ degree heat. But, as always, get the good stuff: salted, roasted or smoked almonds; toffee covered peanuts; pistachios, etc.
  • Gum/Breath Mints/Non-Melting & Individually Wrapped Candies – Eh, sure. Better still to send some really good stuff though: chocolate covered cashews or Little Debbie snack cakes. Guys are pretty much perpetually depressed so they like to eat good stuff. (Don't send anything chocolate in the summer months though... For obvious reasons.) You can send cheap candies for soldiers/Marines to hand out to kids, if you want, but I'd label it as such so that they don't think the cheap candies are supposed to be for them. Oh, and get heavier candies like Jolly Ranchers or Tootsie Rolls (rather than say Laffy Taffy or something lightweight), because these are easier to throw from trucks and go farther too - so that the kids don't run out into traffic.
  • Since mentioning gum, I have one other thought here: send CAFFINATED GUM like Jolt. Great stuff for guard duty, night mounted patrols, etc.
  • Granola/Power Snack Bars – Eh. Again, lots of these already around.
  • Cards/Dice/Checkers/Water Balloons/Etc. – NO. Water balloons? WTF? No cards, no dice. This isn't 1952. Guys play linked games of Blackhawk Down and HALO on their laptops. They don't play cards unless their eyes are aching from the 12-hour straight HALO marathon they just got done with. This one is a NO GO.
  • Pretzel Rods/Can Potato Chips – Eh. Again, better to send GOOD STUFF (peanut butter filled pretzel bites, spicy Pringles, other good chips that are flavored, etc.). You have to pack them carefully of course...
  • A good idea is whey protein powders (don't get soy protein, get whey protein). Guys love this stuff. And often things like MetRx meal replacement packets might just be a life-saver when a guy just can't grab a real meal (convoy duty, stuck guarding a munitions cache all night, etc.).
  • Recent Magazines like Sports/Cars/Hunting/other, gently used OK – YES. Good one. Get trashy: hot rod, motorcycle, & truck magazines, Maxim, all that crap. Bodybuilding magazines are good too, as are general interest magazines like Men's Journal. But, DO NOT, I say again, DO NOT send ‘used’ magazines. That just makes guys mad and makes them feel like you are sending them your trash. Spend the $4 on a new magazine.
  • DVDs and Magazines [no Violence/no Pornography], gently used OK – As above, YES and NO. Do not send 'gently used'. Send NEW stuff. It's SUCH a buzz kill when you get someone's old DVD that they obviously don't want any more. Just because I'm stuck in the Sandbox, doesn't mean I want to actually watch 'Harry and the Henderson's'.... Send comedies, GOOD ONES!!!! Lots of Will Farrell movies, for example. (And, well, anything with a hot girl as the main character - hey, just being honest here.)
  • Another idea: send good computer games. Again, don’t go shopping in the $2 bin for crappy old games. That’s worse than sending nothing at all, frankly. Tactical, racing, or sims type games are usually pretty popular and sometimes more benign stuff like Monopoly or card games like Poker guys can get into as well.
  • Lip Balm/Skin Lotion/Band-Aids/Floss/Toothpicks/Sunscreen – Don't do it. Just don't. Most guys have access to mad PX's. And those that don't already have piles of care packages with this crap in it.
  • Toothpaste/Mouthwash/Eye-Drops/Tylenol/Aleve/Advil [pocket size preferred] – Ibid. See above.
  • One idea though for those serving at higher altitudes (like the mountains of Afghanistan): nasal spray, which helps keep soldier's noses from drying out (and bleeding) in the high, dry air. Better still: nasal gels like Ayr brand.
  • Local/favorite Teams Sports Items, NASCAR drivers, etc. – Yes! Good one! If you are sending to someone you know and know his/her favorites, then send posters for them to put on their crappy concrete and plywood walls.
  • Duct Tape/Bungee Cords – WTF? Why? Like they didn't bring enough, get enough supplied by the Army, or can't buy enough at the PX already?
  • AA Batteries – Good one. Better still, send AAA too.
  • Holiday Decorations – Oh, F--- NO. What, you want to remind them that you are at home for the holidays and they are stuck in a bunker? Don't do it. Send a nice handwritten card thanking them, kids art, and all that nice stuff, but DO NOT send holiday stuff. Geez no. This would be nearly as bad as sending a pamphlet on 'How to Commit Suicide in a Combat Zone' - which is all too easy...
  • My last note, building off the bullet point above, – send sincere thanks. A note, a picture from your kid, something you made, needlepoint, whatever - whatever you can do to truly convey your thanks and honest appreciation is always, always a good thing to send (especially if you DIDN'T just burden some poor SPC with another box of jerky and toiletries...)
Now, if you are serious about the 'Support the Troops' magnetic on your gas-guzzlin' SUV, and REALLY want to support a troop? Send them something like these tasty items:
If you send one of these truly necessary items, the 'troop' you are supporting will TRULY be jazzed and appreciative. And who knows, that piece of gear might really get him/her out of a bind some day...


Monday, April 10, 2006

The Last Statesman Article

The Idaho Statesman asked me to write one more story about my experience in Iraq and it is below.

If you missed any, most are still posted (it looks like after a year, some are being deleted now) at:
Under the title “Letters from Iraq”.

Collect ‘em all!

Boise, Idaho

Idaho soldier welcomes the comforts of homeAbout Christopher Chesak and the letters

Officer Candidate [note from Chris: FINALLY I’m in OCS!] Christopher Chesak, 36, of Boise joined the Idaho National Guard in August 2003. When he reported for boot camp in March 2004, he was the oldest recruit in a company of 150. Chesak works as an independent consultant in the outdoor industry.During the 116th's more than 10 months in Iraq, Chesak wrote a number of "Letters from Iraq" columns for The Idaho Statesman. Readers will remember the story of Chesak experiencing the birth of his first child, daughter Lillian, by telephone as soldiers moved from Kuwait into Iraq in December 2004. Or his story about one soldier who taught Iraqi children to read English by the light of a night-vision scope. [note from Chris: It was actually by the light of some chem. sticks.]About 2,000 Idaho soldiers served in northern Iraq with the 116th Brigade Combat Team. The 116th, based at Boise's Gowen Field, had about 4,000 soldiers from 20 states. The 116th was deployed for of 18 months, including training in Texas and Louisiana before leaving for the Persian Gulf.

Editor's note: Christopher Chesak wrote for The Idaho Statesman about the 116th Brigade Combat Team's experiences in Iraq. We asked him to reflect on life back home, several months after he and the 116th returned in November.

Returning to Boise from a yearlong deployment to Iraq, I quickly slipped back into the comforts, safety and familiarity of home. For days I was numb, almost unable to comprehend it all. Simply lying on my couch, drinking beer and watching football made me feel like some sort of royalty.
The once-mundane was now opulent and luxurious.

But while the physical transition was immediate, the mental and emotional transition took a little more effort.

The first thing I did to help my transition was something many other soldiers won't do: I told Sally, my wife, partner and best friend, all the stories that I couldn't tell her (or you) before.

I described to Sally the distant boom of insurgents' rockets launching, the sound of them flying overhead, and the concussive BOOM! when they hit the U.S. base across the highway from our own.

I explained about the sniper who took potshots at a comrade while I was nearby, talking to her on an Iraqi cell phone. As his squad mobilized to counter-snipe, they informed me of what was happening. I sought cover while still nonchalantly talking to her on the phone.

I expressed the gut-wrenching worry I felt for a friend wounded in the face and hand by a car bomb. I described to Sally what it felt like to clean his warm, sticky blood off the ammo boxes from his Humvee.

I also told my wife what charred body parts look like and what it's like to see a piece of meat lying in the street or wedged into the grill of your Humvee and realize that moments before it was a living, breathing Iraqi person.

We lived in that environment for a year, our senses constantly attuned to so many otherwise minor details and our mettle constantly steeled for whatever might happen next. After a year, it's difficult to let go of that hyper-aware, always-ready, expect-the-worst mind-set.

One day back home, I drove up 28th street and my mind wandered. Suddenly I noticed a pothole in the middle of my lane and instinctively gripped the wheel, readying to swerve the vehicle hard left to avoid the bomb that insurgents might have hidden inside. Luckily, before swerving into oncoming traffic, I remembered that I was now 10 time zones away from those insurgents.

Another night, I spotted a truck trespassing on a neighbor's property. Instead of calling the police, my first thought was to grab my machine gun and train my sights on them. Luckily (especially for the trespassers), I'd turned in that machine gun long ago.Still, and perhaps forever, when a car backfires, I will instinctively assume it's a gunshot and immediately scan for bad guys.

There are other physical reminders. I'm having continuing problems with my hip. I had a pre-cancerous blemish (caused by the intense Iraq sun) burned off. And my body just never quite adjusted to winter's chill this year. I guess that's to be expected since, physiologically, I had to get used to 120-degree days. It must be hard for your body to accept a 100-degree change within just a few months.

For me, those physical problems and mental reactions are slowly fading away. For those who experienced worse than I, the memories won't fade quite so quickly.

One friend from my unit confessed that he was often haunted by the image of an Iraqi man. The (presumably innocent) man was caught between my friend's Humvee and an exploding car bomb. The man was blown across the hood and windshield of the Humvee, giving my friend a firsthand and up-close view of the man's final moments.I hope that time will help him deal with that image, as it has with my own mental snapshots of the violence we witnessed. But dealing with it doesn't mean those images will ever be forgotten.

I actually do what I can to share those experiences, showing my photos (the non-graphic ones) to friends and family, our church (twice), Kiwanis, Rotarians, nurses, grammar and middle schools and whoever else will listen.

A lot of veterans prefer to never speak about these things, but I want all the people back here to know what we went through, what our lives where like, what we missed back home — and to never forget what amazing freedoms, comforts and safety we have in this country.

I know I will never forget that. Nor will I ever forget just how good my own couch feels. Or how a beer fresh out of my refrigerator tastes when I drink it in the confines of a peaceful nation, a quiet hometown and the serenity and protection of home.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

From Bombs to Bean, The Last Blog Post!

Our last days on Barbarian Base were spent packing up. We thought they'd be as quiet as the rest of the year.

Unfortunately, just as our replacements from the 101st Air Assault started to take over, insurgent activity jumped. We started getting a lot of IED's. (We think the insurgents were trying to send a little notice to the active duty guys, who are younger, more gung-ho, and perhaps – just perhaps – not quite as respectful of the locals than us older National Guard types.)

Then, on our second-to-last patrol, our guys from second squad got hit bit a VBIED (a car bomb). Posted by Picasa
Here's a Spc Henson shot of what happened to the truck (which a few months earlier, while I was on leave, was also hit by another large IED , the blast from which actually picked up the rear end and swung the vehicle around a bit and caused some minor damage).

Now, this up-armored M1114 was hit right on the fender by a car bomb, a taxi that swerved at them from oncoming traffic and was filled supposedly with three 155mm, two 135mm, and one 80mm artillery shells. All that happened (to the truck) was three of the tires were blown out, some minor fender/engine damage, and the trunk was somehow blown open, along with two of the doors. After the blast, the truck actually drove out of the 'kill zone' for a few hundred meters. (You gotta love that 'run flat' system on the tires, which is nothing more than a solid rubber donut inside the air-inflated tire.) Some mechanic's time, about $10,000 worth of parts, and this truck was actually patrolling again within a week.

The series of images to follow are all Spc Hensen's. Posted by Picasa
Here's a shot of the truck, number B36, while it's still out in sector, awaiting a tow back to the KRAB (note that a gunner is still manning the turret machine gun). These things might cost a quarter-million dollars per, but for the four out of five crew inside that walked away without a scratch, it was certainly money well spent.

Unfortunately the fifth guy, my buddy 'Scarface', was the original guy in the gun turret and was hit, but even he had only minor wounds, including a burned hand (from the blast) and cuts on his face. He may have been hit by the blast itself, by some small shrapnel, something blown around by the blast, or the 80+ pound .50 cal machine gun, which was blown off its mount (all for lack of a simple coder pin that probably costs $2) and into the vehicle. Posted by Picasa
Some of 'Scarface's' cuts were near his tear duct though, so he was flown out of the KRAB on a medivac to a larger base, just in case. It turned out the duct will be okay but he'll have to wait and see if he has any problems with it tearing or not in the future. Posted by Picasa
He rejoined us a few days later and is fine. (When most guys saw these past few photos, some thought that the photos shouldn't have even been taken – much less, I assume, posted on a blog. But I wanted to post them so that you can see the real affects of what's going on over there. Meanwhile many other guys who saw this photo only commented on how cute the stretcher bearer to the left rear was.)

Worst of all, a few innocent civilians were killed in the blast. The civilians didn't have our Interceptor body armor on and certainly weren't in a M1114 armored truck. One guy was wearing only a 'man dress' and riding a bike. Posted by Picasa
Here you see some damage to a taxi further from the blast. Posted by Picasa
Here's a shot of what's left of the car bomb. Posted by Picasa
As another truck returned with the ammo and weapons taken off the damaged Humvee and we started unloading it, I noticed something sticky on the ammo cans. It was Scarface's blood.

Wilson and I got some baby wipes and started cleaning them off. This was definitely a 'reality check' for me. So much of the year had been so quiet and we were so near leaving, that I don't think I was completely mentally prepared for something like this (then again, how could you be, unless having been through it before). I can't imagine what it would have been like to actually lose someone… Posted by Picasa
Here's a close up of vehicle B31, which was right behind B36. This is where some of the car bomb's shrapnel hit it, peeling back a thumb-sized piece of the armor but, obviously, coming nowhere near penetrating it. Posted by Picasa
Here's B31 again. The small gouge in the armor is barely visible near the bottom center of the door.

You might be wondering what are the oil stains on the vehicle. Well, remember that poor guy on the bike? That's him. Posted by Picasa
After all this, we had to keep on packing up. Scarface's squad members, shown here, had to pack all his stuff up for him as he recovered in a distant hospital.

He was constantly on all our minds for the next few days. Even if we knew he was fine, we still kept thinking about him. Posted by Picasa
In between thoughts of Scarface, I started to get a little excited, finally starting to believe that we were actually leaving! Posted by Picasa
Our last day, we started throwing all our remaining duffle bags in the LMTV (cargo truck), Posted by Picasa
and then finally, blissfully, happily, drove the heck out of Barbarian Base for once and for all (or so we thought). Note that the two guys in the cargo truck in front of me are taking pictures of me taking pictures of them. It was a momentous moment and worthy of all the shots we could take. Posted by Picasa
And then, at last, finally moved onto the KRAB. Posted by Picasa
Our new home. Posted by Picasa
Inside our new bachelor pad, the lads got settled. Posted by Picasa
We unloaded the truck full of our duffle bags and then reloaded it with duffles from the 101st guys. Posted by Picasa
While we thought we were done with Barbarian Base for good, we did later that night drop back in and say hello to some of the new guys in our bay. The rest of our company was on one, last, final raid, that we thankfully (somehow) missed out on. So we sat and watched Armed Forces Network TV for a few hours until their return, as they were our ride back to our new home at the KRAB. Posted by Picasa
We also turned in most of our ammo (keeping just a magazine per guy, just in case), Posted by Picasa
I said a bittersweet farewell to my SAW, Posted by Picasa

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