Self Release

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Sitting in Saddam Hussein’s chair in Al Faw Palace Iraq, with General Bill Phillips

I distinctly remember when my C-130 military transport flight landed at Camp Victory, Iraq, it was O-dark thirty but already stifling hot.  We made a combat landing, which means a steep circling descent, much like a plane crash, only with style, like Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story. When they opened the back end of the airplane for us to disembark it felt as if I had placed my head in an oven, and this was in the early morning before the sun came up. I was a bit apprehensive but joyfully thrilled to get out of the C-130 transport plane because I was wearing full battle-rattle and the seats were not commercial airline seats, but were what the military called web seats.  Think straps and aluminum poles. Think modern torture device. I am no princess and the pea, and have been known to fall asleep in under a minute, but these web seats tortured me.  I felt like a fly caught in a web and I kept looking for a large spider to drop down and spin a cocoon around me. It didn’t help that I was geared up with a helmet, a bullet proof vest that weighed about 40 pounds, a weapon, and a backpack, etc.  If that spider did drop down, I would simply flail about helplessly too weighted down to move, crying “help me, help me” like the poor fly-man in the original Fly movie.

Once I safely escaped the web seat and stepped out of the aircraft, we were herded like cattle to a quick in-processing center. Afterwards, I went and found the rest of my gear, which unlike the average commercial flight, had arrived the same time I did at the same location. Upon locating my gear, my transportation to my overnight billeting arrived to pick me up. She was a cheerful, attractive young Airman and I begin to think that maybe this wasn’t a bad gig after all. She drove me across the sprawling base to the tin compound where I would spend the night before heading to my main operating base in the IZ, commonly known as the Greenzone.  I saw a lot of palm trees, and dust, and blown up buildings. We even drove by the Flintstone compound so named because it looked like the houses on Flintstones.  Supposedly Saddam Hussein had built it for his grandchildren.  We also drove past the Victory over America Palace which coalition forces had destroyed the first week of the war. I wonder if they are now building a new Victory over America palace that we will blow up in a few more years. Or maybe a new Flintstone compound, though today I suspect it would be more likely to be a SpongeBob Squarepants compound.

Upon getting to the tin compound, I met a senior officer whose tour had just ended and was heading home.  He looked tired and mentally exhausted, but there was a glint in his eye because he was getting on a plane to head home the next day. I was the FNG, and he looked at me sympathetically, but oddly did not say a word. Much later I realized why, there was no way he could describe the situation I was about to enter, it was better just to let me enjoy one more day of near normalcy.

The next day I caught a Rhino ride up to the IZ.  The Rhino was an amazing vehicle. It was by all accounts an up armored camping RV with seats inside like a bus.  Think of the RV in the Bill Murray movie Stripes, and that is pretty close.  You see the U.S. hadn’t really planned for a war like this and did not yet have enough armored vehicles for transporting personnel.  So the Army in its wisdom paid a contractor to weld steel sheets around an RV, and voila’, you had a Rhino. Of course the RV wasn’t built to carry that much weight, so the tires were strained to their limits and the vehicle lumbered slowly along the road much like an aging rhino.  Fortunately there were tiny portholes in the Rhino so I could peer out along the way as we traversed up “Route Irish” to the IZ.  Route Irish was what the Americans had named the main highway from the Baghdad airport to the IZ.  I had no idea why, but the Americans had given all the main roads new names, Route Irish, Route Tampa, Route Arrogance, Route Nowhere.  I am not sure if this was for security purpose or just because we could. Route Irish was later the name of a movie because it was known as the most dangerous road in the world and I was lumbering up it in an overweight RV with a big “shoot me” sign literally painted on the side.  But luckily, no one did and I arrived in the IZ no worse for wear, though now whenever I step foot in an RV I unconsciously break out in a sweat and hide behind the refrigerator.

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Here’s a Rhino after a bad day on Route Irish

Normally, the person I was replacing would be there to greet me when I arrived and he would show me the ropes for a week or so before they headed home. No such luck. The person I was replacing left a week before I arrived, which was a total foul in this business. I would soon learn why. Instead, my new Deputy picked me up, and he was a dapper, articulate, and intelligent officer one rank below mine. He got me squared away in a place to stay, a small dorm like room. Since I was a senior officer I actually had a hard walled concrete room, instead of tin, and I had my own bathroom. The concrete was important not only because it provided a quieter living space, it also reduced your chances of getting killed by a stray rocket or mortar. The bulk of the forces in the IZ lived in what were referred to as CHUs which stood for Containerized Housing Unit and were often metal shipping boxes like you see on trains or ships, which had been converted to living quarters.  Others were just shabbily constructed tin shacks. If you were lucky, you got to share a bathroom with someone, if you weren’t, you had to walk to a bathroom in the middle of the compound. Not fun at 2 a.m. in the morning. These tin shacks were packed closely together and groupings of CHUs were given fancy names (i.e. Coral Gables), as if you were living in a gated community. Which I guess technically was true, but the gates were there to keep out guys with explosive vests strapped to their bodies eager to meet their maker. The CHUs villages closely resembled tightly packed trailer parks and for some I suspect it resembled home.  Many that joined the military at this point in time enlisted because they could not afford to go to college and had no other option out of High School.  The military may have been a volunteer force, but a good many had joined out of necessity rather than anything else. This war was being fought in large part by the poor and underprivileged and not by a cross section of the country like in World War II. America’s privileged class got us into this war, the downtrodden were left to fight it.

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A CHU village at Balad Air Base

Living in the CHUs had 2 significant drawbacks; the bad guys liked to aim their rockets and mortars into the CHU villages because they had a good change of killing someone.  You see, the rockets and mortars cut through the tin roofs of the CHUs like a hot knife going through butter. Occasionally a rocket or mortar made it through the air defense system and the air raid alarms would go off. Those in their CHUs were supposed to run to concrete bunkers, but by then it was too late, so instead they usually hunkered down on the floor and prayed that the rocket or mortar would not hit their CHU.  Usually they were right, sometimes they were wrong.  The other drawback to living in a CHU was the risk of getting electrocuted.  Most CHUs were hastily constructed and did not follow standard electrical codes, so it was always a risk taking a shower. So, I was more than happy with my concrete walled living arrangement.  The mice and cockroaches I shared it with were only a minor nuisance compared to the many Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines living in CHU villages.

The next day I entered my office and everyone seemed to be quite chipper, I thought they were just glad to see me. I soon found out why the mood was so upbeat.  Our boss, Admiral Dussault, was headed out to her 3 week R&R that day so we would be without her presence for nearly a month.  She said Hi to me as she headed out the door and I thought she seemed pleasant enough, and for the next 3 weeks I learned the ropes and got to know my troops.  They were all good eggs, doing their best in a trying environment.

I quickly got into the routine that everyone said much resembled the movie Ground Hog day.  Get up, eat breakfast, work until lunch, eat lunch, work until dinner, eat dinner, work until around 10 p.m. on most nights, go to bed. Repeat 365 times, go home. For the troops who went outside the wire it was a much different routine, but for a logistics support type who lived on a Forward Operating Base (FOB), that was pretty much it.  For us FOBBITs as we were sometimes referred to, the routine was occasionally broken up with a random mortar or rocket attack, which brought about 30 seconds of sheer panic, but then we were quickly back to sheer boredom.  Some watched movies on Saturday night, but I was always too busy. I usually worked 14 hour days every day except Sunday, when I didn’t report to work until after lunch. Often I slept in, but occasionally I would play Frisbee golf with my best deployed friend Shof.  Frisbee golf is a sport where you attempt to land a Frisbee in a chain basket 300 to 400 feet away. We didn’t have real Frisbee golf baskets so we just used trees, dumpsters, guard shacks and other random objects in the compound as our targets. Often on windy days a poorly thrown Frisbee would fly outside of the compound and land in the yard of some unsuspecting Iraqi family. I am sure some young child came upon the orange disk and wondered if it was manna from heaven, looking up at the sky and thanking Allah for the mysterious orange disk. Once, my friend Shof threw a long drive and the disk flew into a room with an open door. Seconds later a poor Iraqi cleaning lady came screaming out of the room, I am sure thinking a rocket had just flow into the room and was about to explode.  Occasionally, we would hit the guard shacks manned by contract security guards from one of the African countries, most were Ugandan’s but there were others.  They were stout, professional, and friendly, not at all like the Blackwater types that killed for sport, they would just smile and wave when we hit their guard towers with frisbees. I think they welcomed any relief from their boring and mundane job sitting in a guard tower for unending hours in sweltering heat.

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My friend Shof picking up his frisbee that he nearly threw over the T-wall. Contract security guard watching in the tower with amusement

The rest of the week however was pretty much ground hog day. The big topic of conversation in the office each day was where to eat lunch and dinner.  We had the luxury of being within walking distance of 3 Dining Facilities (DFACs).  The CASH was the closest, but the worst, so we only ate there out of necessity, usually for lunch.  Normally we would stroll to the “Stick” or the Embassy for dinner.  The stick was short for Multi-National Security Transition Command- Iraq (MNSTC-I) which was pronounced Min-Sticky, which we then shortened to the “Stick.”  The embassy was just that, the U.S. embassy in Iraq. Before the multi-billion dollar new embassy was built the coalition forces had taken over a large magnificent palace, complete with a large in ground swimming pool.  The food at the Stick was good, especially the dessert section, while the food at the embassy was remarkable; prime rib, steak, crab legs, desserts of every type.  Here we were deployed to a desert, living in tin shacks, but eating steak and lobster for dinner and countless choices for dessert and more ice cream flavors than Baskin Robbins.  It was one of the more surreal things about my time in Iraq. I recall once talking to my wife back home and casually mentioned that I had crab legs for dinner, which is one of her favorite meals, and she was confounded by the fact that I was at war eating crab legs. Due to my job I visited many of the FOBs and ate at many DFACs across Iraq, and most were quite good.  The one at Basra was unique because it was British with English and Indian dishes, but most offered up a plethora of American style food. I think our senior leaders were trying to create a bit of home for our troops here far from home.  They even had Burger Kings and Pizza Huts at some locations, though I am not sure what meat they used. It was a fact that most troops gained weight when they were deployed, I did. Instead of the old Freshmen 10, we now had the deployment 10.

The holidays at the DFACs were quite unique. The local Iraqi food preparers excelled in the art of carving melons to look like seasonal objects (i.e. Turkeys, Santas, etc.). So throughout the DFAC was all of this elaborately carved fruit, I had seen anything like it before, and have not since.  Fruit at the DFACs was plentiful and I took to eating the large Kiwi that were very good.  Unlike most of the fruit in American mega grocery stores that was picked green, and never really ripened, the fruit in the DFACs in Iraq was ripe and usually quite tasty. It reminded me of my times working on a fruit orchard as a teen. So you could eat healthy in Iraq, just like you can in America, you just need willpower and discipline. Most Americans, and most GIs, however, filled up on the fried foods and ice cream.  We would likely survive the war, but die of coronary disease 30 years later.

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A carved melon in a DFAC at Balad Air Base

Unfortunately just as I was getting into a regular routine the Admiral returned from her mid-tour R&R and the mood of the office took a somber turn.  I soon learned why.  The Admiral was all about the Admiral. She was in charge of contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan but was a Supply officer with only limited contracting experience. It’s like asking the President of IBM to run Ford Motor Company. She made up for her lack of knowledge with poor leadership skills. She lambasted her staff regularly and her number one concern was looking good to the top brass, particularly, General Petraeus.  Each morning there was a Battlefield Update Assessment (BUA) briefing to General Petraeus with all of his senior Commanders calling in from throughout Iraq. They briefed the previous day’s operations, significant issues, and tons of metrics. Gen Petraeus loved his metrics. How many car bombs had exploded the previous day, month, year, how many IED or weapons were confiscated, how many bad guys were captured or killed, etc.  If there was any mention of contracting and the Admiral wasn’t pre-briefed, my staff would have hell to pay.  This data came from all ends of Iraq and we had no idea what was going to be briefed that morning. Often the contractors in question were not ones that we managed, but that didn’t matter.  The Admiral attended the BUA each morning with her Chief of Staff and her military aide. The aide was typically a junior Captain and he was at the Admirals beck and call 24×7. After the BUA brief each morning the aid would come to my office and report the weather. “Sunny” meant there was no mention of contracting at the BUA and the Admiral was in a good mood, “cloudy” meant there was mention, but not negative, “rainy” meant that there was an issue and the Admiral was in a foul mood and on the warpath.  He would then tell us the issue and I immediately had my staff drop everything they were currently doing, no matter how important, and begin working the issue in hopes that by the time I saw the Admiral I had the issue in hand. “Westy” she would say, this is unacceptable.  “Yes Ma’am”, I would say, “I am on it.” Westy is the moniker I went by in the Admiral’s presence. She had once lamented that my name was too long, and told me I needed a short nickname, like one of my peers who went by Shof.  I paused for a moment, and recalled that my dad went by Westy at work, so I quickly blurted out “Westy” like when Ralphie mistakenly blurted to Santa that he wanted a football for Christmas.  I was known as Westy ever since. I guess actually it was OK, there were worse things to be called and it reminded me of my dad whenever she said it.  Years later, whenever someone would call me Westy I would break out in cold sweat and my blood pressure would instantly rise. I wouldn’t go as far to call it PTSD, but maybe PASD, Post Admiral Stress Disorder.

Our staff meetings were fun too. You did not dare to offer a viewpoint counter to the Admiral’s. Once, our senior policy expert corrected her on an inaccurate statement. I still recall as she slowly rotated her head in his direction, like a Tiger tank slowly swinging it turret around to a target, then with venom in her eyes and much malice, she verbally assaulted the poor guy for 10 minutes.  Even though everybody in the room knew he was correct, we edged away from the poor fellow, there was nothing we could do.  We had a term for this, it was called being “Dussaulted.”  This treatment was not new to me, my father ruled in a similar fashion, but it still was no way to run a rodeo. Soon, everyone kept their mouth shut during staff meetings and most of the productive work was done after the Admiral left for the day.  I took it upon myself to be a buffer between her and the staff, so they could get the mission done without fear, much like Henry Fonda in the war movie Mister Roberts. But rather than confront her, I took a different tact. I hid much of the daily contracting operations information from her, especially any negative news, because if she found out, the poor staff would be Dussaulted.  It was a dangerous cat and mouse game that I played with utmost care, and for the most part well.  The other tact I took was to become the staff jester. I made a point to make her laugh, especially during tense situations. I always brought her bad news in person, and before doing so I started with a Changism.  You see, Admiral Chang was a legendary Navy Admiral of Asian descent who was world famous for butchering the American language and misquoting famous quotes.  She, being an Admiral liked everything Navy, and she especially liked an Air Force guy talking Navy.  So I would start each bad news story with a Changism like “Every once in a while you have to stir up the shits” which was one of her favorites, or “Running around like a chicken with his legs cut off.” After I broke her the bad news of the day I then quickly followed with another “Like shooting pickles in a barrel.” This usually distracted her from the bad news and I quickly excused myself to get back to work. I usually timed these exchanges about 5 minutes before her yoga class, she attended those religiously and if the Changisms didn’t distract her from the bad news, her aide would step in and remind her that it was time for yoga class and I would live another day. Every once in a while something would set her off and she would launch into a rampage, screaming at whomever was closest, often her hapless secretary Ann. I spent more than one afternoon with her poor secretary crying in my office.  I kept thinking, “There’s no crying in war”, but I was wrong. Over time I learned the topics that sent her into a rage and I kept a list of the Top 10 things never to say to Admiral Dussault.  When my staff had to brief her I reviewed the Top 10 list with them and I carefully scripted what they should say to her.  If they went off script and said one of the 10 dirty words, I simply stepped back and let the Dussault occur, there was nothing I could do for them. Afterwards, they would always ask what went wrong, and I would shake my head and remind them that they had said one of the dirty words. After a few Dussaults, the staff quickly memorized the 10 dirty words and followed my script to a tee. They even began to use Changisms like “while the iron is still hot go for the full loaf.”  It was childish, but so was getting screamed at for something beyond your control.

Here is a list of changisms that I obtained from a Navy buddy that I used to keep the Admiral amused.

The Admiral liked to visit the troops in the field, which is not uncommon for senior leaders, but she was greatly despised by all and no one wanted her to visit.  When I called one of the bases to let them know she was visiting, they always begged for me to send her elsewhere. It’s not that they didn’t want to look good for the boss, but rather the amount of effort to host the Admiral and her entourage was all consuming and they were already working 14 hour days.  Most of our locations were small outfits of 10-15 personnel.  When the Admiral traveled she brought her military aide, her senior enlisted advisor, myself, 4 body guards, and usually 1-2 more people from the staff.  Usually the entourage was as big as the field unit she was visiting, and the whole time she was there operations were at a standstill.  But I have to admit the trips were fun.  We flew all over Iraq in about every aircraft and helicopter imaginable and we received the royal treatment the whole time we were there. Once, when flying back from FOB Delta she told the Blackhawk pilot to make the trip back fun. He did.  We proceeded to dip and dive and swerve and roll in a Blackhawk helicopter with the doors wide open and wind whipping by.  Think of a rollercoaster without rails, that was pretty much it.  That was the same trip that the Admiral made her whole staff go to yoga class with her.  We had a 6:00 p.m. meeting with the Brigade Commander, who was the senior officer on the FOB, but she learned of a yoga class at the gym and cancelled the meeting and directed her staff that they would all attend with her. So here we were, the Admiral, her aide, myself, the senior enlisted advisor, her 4 body guards, and 2 local members of her staff skipping a meeting with the senior officer on the FOB so we could attend a yoga class together. I guess it’s all about priorities.

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Chief Rogers disembarking off of a British Puma helicopter near Basra, IRaq

One of the mandatory stops when visiting the bases was inspecting the TCN camps. TCN stood for Third Country Nationals and they were the third world people hired by the big defense contractors to provide bases services like laundry or food preparation.  Most were paid much less than minimum wage and it was rumored that the defense contractors took their passports and charged them large sums for room and board to live in squalor conditions. They were in effect forced labor camps sponsored by U.S. Defense contractors in full view of a complicit Department of Defense.  The Admiral had a keen interest in these TCN camps and took it upon herself to inspect them on every trip. To this day I am not sure if she truly cared for the well-being of these destitute laborers, or if she was just worried that Walter Pincus of the Washington Post would write an article about the situation and “Stir up the shits” as Admiral Chang would have said.   Walter Pincus wrote regularly on the fraud, waste and abuse of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and we always feared an article by him. He closely followed our public contract announcements and if he ever saw a contract he didn’t like, we read about it in the Washington Post in an angry opinion piece. We would then receive a rash of Congressional inquiries and questions from the Pentagon staff and for the next 48 hours it was a flurry of damage control and written responses tirelessly staffed through the bureaucracy. We called this painful series of events getting “Pincus’d”, sort of like getting punked, only on the front page of the Washington Post instead of a TV show. Often they would ask for some number that we did not have, like “How many contractors were doing this”, or “How many of these did we have in Iraq,” etc.  We had no idea because we did not have systems to collect data like that in a warzone.  When we first told the Pentagon that we did not know the number they insisted we get one. So my staff came up with a random number generator and made up the answer out of thin air.  The number could never end in zero or five because that sounded too made up, so we usually ended the number in a 6 or 3 and we usually had an 8 in the answer somewhere. So when the Pentagon would ask us how many contractors were minors, we pulled out the Random Number Generator, often referred to as RNG, and the answer was 836.  One number the Coalition Force did track was how many troops were on the ground, referred to as BOG (Boots on Ground). As the war begin to draw down General Odierno directed us to reduce the number of contractors, so we started to track them as well, that number was referred to as the COG (Contractors on Ground).  One evening we got a request from the Pentagon for how many contract working dogs were in the AOR (Area of Responsibility). We did not know so we pulled out the RNG and made up a number.  Later we did put out a data call to get an accurate number and we tongue in cheek referred to this as the POG count (Paws on Ground), we had to remember that dogs have 4 paws when sending in the report. Apparently, DoD cared more about the shortage of working dogs than the quality of life of the foreign workers in the TCN camps.

Another stop during our visits to the FOBs was foamed tents. Yes you read that correctly. When coalition forces first arrived in Iraq in 2003 they lived in tents, which became unbearable hot unless you had an air conditioners powered by diesel generators.  These generators used a lot of fuel which then had to be transported throughout Iraq in convoys.  Fuel convoys were spectacular targets for IED attacks so anything to reduce fuel consumption on the FOBs was greatly encouraged.  In 2008 someone came up with the brilliant idea to cover the tents with a foam like substance to keep them cool and reduce fuel consumption.  However there was a few faults in this logic.  First, a tent covered in foam cannot be moved or reused,  secondly the war was winding down and IED attacks were now infrequent, and lastly, most of the troops now lived in the tin CHUs.  So why expend millions of dollars foaming tents that would soon be turned over to Iraqis who would likely use them to shelter their goats after we left.  The more troubling part of this idea was that it was being pushed by retired senior military types now working for defense contractors.  They had contacts at high levels in the Pentagon who bought the sales pitch hook, line, and sinker and we were soon ordered to pay contractors to foam everything that wasn’t moving.  We had to provide weekly updates on the progress of foaming tents much like the BOG, COG, and POG reports we were already doing.  I guess we could have called this report the FOT (Foam on Tents) count, but we had grown tired of acronyms at that point. We did surmise that if we instead had foamed the insurgents instead of the tents the war would have been over much earlier. Or maybe we thought, we could have saved millions if we had foamed the Rhinos instead of spending billions for MRAPS that we cut into scrap iron when we left Iraq.  But then corporate profits would have been down that quarter, and well, we couldn’t have that. Besides, I love the smell of foam in the morning, it smells like victory. Someday this war’s gonna end.

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A recently foamed tent in Iraq

I did get to see a lot of cool stuff when I was touring across Iraq, visiting many of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. He had a lot. Not sure how he could afford the property taxes.  The Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory was spectacular, marble staircases, grand chandeliers, surrounded by a large moat and lake, all the excesses of a dictator with money to burn.  It was the Multi-National Corps-Iraq headquarters during the war and was informally used as a golf driving range too. Senior officers liked to tee up golf balls and see how far into the lake they could drive them.  It was filled with huge Koi fish and the troops used to enjoy feeding them. I was just happy we didn’t have to do a KOG (Koi on Ground) report.

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Al Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Iraq

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Feeding the fish at Al Faw Palace

I also had the opportunity to visit the Great Ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq. The Ziggurat was a pyramid like structure dating back to the 21st century B.C. It had eroded over the years but had been rebuilt in the 6th century B.C, which still sounds pretty old to me. Iraq did not have a Federal Park Service like the United States so it was not protected or maintained.  There was a local Iraqi who took it upon himself to be the caretaker and would give a tour for a small fee. In addition to the Ziggurat, he took us to nearby catacombs surrounded by hieroglyphic writings and a reconstructed stone house which was touted as birthplace of the prophet Abraham.  I thought, if this truly was the cradle of civilization, what had gone so horrible wrong?

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Standing in front of the Ziggurat of Ur with the Admiral, her aide, and Chief Tommie Rogers

Usually on the evening of the last day of the trip we had some type of social event which ended with us all smoking cigars around a fire. Smoking cigars was one of the few vices allowed in the AOR and it was a common practice of senior officers.  The Admiral wanted desperately to be seen as one of the boys and she was always quick to light up. I did not normally smoke, but did so to stay in the Admiral’s good graces. We sometimes sipped on near beers too, which did not in my opinion taste anywhere near beer, but if you drank 5 or 6 of them you got a little buzz. During these times the Admiral was actually quite pleasant, but there was always tomorrow. I always accompanied the Admiral on her trips, one because she insisted, but also because I could protect my troops from getting Dussaulted and I helped them avoid saying the 10 dirty words.  If they strayed into dangerous territory during a brief I would throw in a Changism to distract her. It was like a dog spotting a squirrel, all I needed was a few seconds to change the topic.

My Deputy once complained that he never got to go on any trips so once when the Admiral was scheduled to visit a base that I had been to twice, I said he could go in my stead.  The Admiral did not like travelling without her jester but I begged off with some excuse that I was working some hot political issue, which was true everyday anyway but it made for a good excuse.

Much to my surprise the Deputy returned a few days later without the Admiral.  For a moment I wistfully hoped that he had pushed her out of a Blackhawk at 3000 feet like a flightless turkey on a misguided Radio station promotion, but to my dismay he reported that she extended her trip to visit another location and he did not see the need to accompany her.  He was wrong.  Without proper escort things would go wrong, others did not know the 10 dirty words and how to humor the Admiral when she got overly excited.  Prophetically, a short while later the phone rang and it was an angry Admiral on the phone, she asked for my Deputy. I knew this wasn’t going to end well as I handed the phone over to him.  A few seconds later I heard the Admiral screaming, “Why am I here” and my Deputy replied “Because you asked to be”. Once again, I heard her yell “Why am I here?” The one way conversation only went downhill from there.  The previous day while on the visit my Deputy had let the Admiral go off on her own (a crucial mistake), and someone had asked if she wanted to tour a construction site the next day and she said yes.  My Deputy did not learn about this until afterward, and just hopped on a flight home the next morning, leaving the Admiral. It was not until the next day that the Admiral learned that the construction site she was touring was not even one of her projects, and she had no idea why she was touring it.  That explained the screeching voice on the phone asking “Why am I here?”  Needless to say, he never went on another trip with the Admiral and it explains that whenever I hear someone ask “Why I am Here” I think back to the Admiral screaming on the phone and think, because you asked to be.

One of the more interesting trips I took was to the TIFRICs at Camp Bucca and Taji.  What the hell is a TIFRIC most people ask, is it short for TERRIFIC?  Not exactly. We military types love our acronyms, we have them for everything, (FUBAR, BUA, DFAC, etc.).  It’s like we have our own secret language, “I was on the way to the DFAC, after the BUA, and I saw a TCN get hit by an IED, and he was MEDEVAC’d to the CASH, he was FUBAR.” For those not conversant in military acronyms let me translate, “I was on my way to breakfast after the morning briefing, and I saw a non-American get hit by an explosive device, who was then rushed to the hospital, he did not look good.”  Who needs Native American code talkers anymore, we speak in our own code.  I can only imagine a local insurgent overhearing this conversation and trying to figure out what the language of origin was for FUBAR. French? Arabic? No, pure American G.I.

So what was a TIFRIC then? It stood for “Theater Internment Facility Reintegration Center”.  Well that sounds like a prison to me most people say, which it was, but it was politically incorrect to say that the U.S. had prisons in Iraq holding Iraqi citizens.  So we called these multiple barb-wired fenced facilities “reintegration centers”, where we taught the good citizens trades like making bricks or baking bread. Later after they were released I suspect they turned their bread or brickmaking skills into creative ways to hide IEDs. I toured both the bread and brick making facilities and have a Bucca brick packed away somewhere. The bread was good but the brick seemed very brittle and likely to fall apart in a few years, much like the country did a few years later. A weak foundation is no way to build a house or a country.

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The bread factory at Camp Bucca, Iraq

Occasionally a prisoner would escape, but we were not allowed to call them prisoners since they were just in for “reintegration”, so we couldn’t say they escaped, instead we said that they had “Self-released.” That’s like calling the 300 pound person at Walmart “big boned” instead of obese. I kept wishing I could “Self-release” myself from this Godforsaken, unbelievably hot, dusty, dirty country.

The “prisoners” were insurgents captured during military operations. Most were Iraqis, but there were other nationalities thrown in for good measure.  Once captured they were de-loused, showered, given prison garb, and then “interrogated”. Often the interrogators knew who they were already, sometimes they had to acquire that information.  Eventually they were classified as to their level of “badness”, (i.e. petty thief, thug, world class terrorist). The classification level then determined how they were “interred’’ and treated. It was no Taj Mahal, but the food was OK, probably better than what they got at home, and if they behaved themselves, they got to watch a little Iraqi TV.  In 2009 as the U.S. began to draw down and close bases and release lower threat prisoners it was decided to close the TIFRIC at Camp Bucca and fly them up to Taji, which was a more modern TIFRIC. To do this, they blindfolded and handcuffed the prisoners and loaded them onto a huge C-17 transport plane.  These flights were referred to as CON Air after the Nicholas Cage movie. They did not have seats but rather sat the prisoners together in the middle of the hold, chained together and blindfolded.  They had no idea where they were going and what was going to happen to them, and most likely had never flown in an aircraft before. They probably thought that they were being taken out to get shot or pushed out of the aircraft while it was in the air. Subsequently, there was a lot of shouting, moaning, defecation, and urination going on. Not necessarily in that order. My inspection team once caught a hop on a CON Air Flight in the front jump seats to get back to their home base. They said it was an experience they would never forget, I can see why. Luckily John Malkovich was not on the flight and they made it back safely, with only a few mental scars.

CON Air flights were however not the worst experience that my inspection teams would face. After every inspection they had to conduct an out brief to the Admiral with the commander of the unit on the telephone listening. This was a delicate undertaking.  If they found significant issues and reported them to the Admiral she would publicly eviscerate the commander, then me, and then everyone in the room. It was like being lined up at the guillotine awaiting your turn. If however, they reported that all was good, she would smell a rat and start grilling the commander with questions until he inadvertently said one of the dirty words, and well, it would go downhill from there. It was like a game of bingo, expect the poor sucker who called bingo got Dussaulted.  So the trick for the out brief was to present enough findings to indicate that the inspection team had done their due diligence, but not enough to get the Commander fired. The inspection team also learned to sprinkle the out brief with humorous pictures of them in various locations throughout Iraq. Like Where’s Waldo, only its where is the inspection team today, climbing on a blown up tank at Taji, in a magnificent palace at Camp Victory, in an ancient building in Basra, smoking a cigar by one of Saddam’s pools, or riding on a CON Air flight with 300 of the country’s worst terrorists. I bet when the recruiter told them that they would see the world if they joined the military he had no idea they would see every dusty nook and cranny of Iraq.  This distraction worked pretty well and we escaped most of the out briefs with only a mild beating.  The Admiral called them a wire-brushing which is actually a pretty apt description, I called them mental anguish. I was happy to retreat to the sanctuary of my office afterwards which was my safe haven, the Admiral rarely left the front office.

Once I was hiding calmly in my office and I heard the Admiral calling out “Westy”.  I was immediately alarmed, something really bad must have happened if she is seeking me out. I quickly stepped out of my office to greet her and she was not there, but I kept hearing her calling “Westy.”  I had begun to think that I was having a really bad nightmare or maybe I was being called to my final resting place when I realized that her voice was coming from the Tandberg on my desk.  The Tandberg was a secure desktop Video TeleConferencing device that I used to communicate with my commanders in the field.  Normally it rang when someone wanted to speak to you, and you answered, like a phone.  Somehow the Admiral had learned how to use her Tandberg and was able to call me using an auto pick up function. I answered back to the Admiral, who was only about 20 feet away through the wall, and she just wanted to use her new toy.  After our conversation I immediately went to our IT guys and had the auto pickup function turned off. I did not want to hear her voice in my sanctuary nor did I want her to overhear each morning’s weather reports.

After 7 miserable months the Admiral was due to rotate back stateside. Her change of command date was set but the current Commander of the Multi-National Forces- Iraq, General Odierno, was unavailable to preside over the change of command ceremony. Normally, another senior General officer would preside but mysteriously none could be found. The scuttlebutt was that they all despised her and did not want to speak at her ceremony.  Finally, a General officer who thought highly of her inbound replacement volunteered. I recall being at a meeting once with him when she was mentioned and he rolled his eyes in front of everyone. There was much excitement around the office the day of the ceremony, we were in fact giddy. The reign of terror was about to be over and the word on the street was the new Commander, General William “Bill” Phillips, was a superb officer and a kind-hearted person. He was indeed and the remaining 5 months of my tour in the Iraq were busy, but productive and almost pleasant.

One June 29th, 2009, after spending 365 days in Iraq, I got on a charter plane (with real seats), and I self-released from Iraq. The jester did not have to sing to the Queen anymore.

This month’s song is Fake Empire by The National. When I was in Iraq I would go for runs around the compound in the evening and listen to The National’s album Boxer to calm my nerves.  Fake Empire was the first song on the album and its lyrics intrigued me.

 

2 thoughts on “Self Release

  1. I’m honored to have been mentioned herein with my battle buddy and dear friend Westy. This was definitely a trip down memory and nightmare lane. Thanks for sharing the times then and now. Shof

    Liked by 1 person

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