The week passed and the world shrunk to life inside T walls. The 3 day lockdown meant we couldn’t pop over to Prosperity for a change of scene so Union III’s little wedge of land was it. We weren’t allowed to go up on to the roof of Building 5 (former HQ of the Ba’ath party in Sadam’s day) during lockdown. This had become a favourite thing of mine to do; from the roof you can look out over the IZ in Baghdad, over the rooves of the vast new US Embassy (largest in the world) and see the Tigris River on the eastern side of the FOB. Unfortunately, there is – understandably – a very strict “no photos” policy re the embassy so that meant no photos of the Tigris as well which is the thing I most wanted to photograph. On the west side of the building you can see the famous crossed swords, the tomb of the unknown soldier and …. a ferris wheel! You can walk around three sides of the roof and there’s just something sort of normalizing about looking out over the city, being able to see real houses down there, trees and, in the distance, some ordinary roads with ordinary cars going somewhere. In the IZ, the roads are all lined with t-walls and so when you’re in a bus or armoured vehicle, all you can see is the t-walls.
Prior to my arrival, there had been a work stoppage on all teaching except in Streicher (near Tikrit). The reasons given for this were “security issues” that needed to be satisfactorily attended to before teaching could begin. Those of us who were fairly new and hadn’t yet been assigned to a base, were waiting to hear where we would be deployed to. Apparently we wouldn’t be allowed to travel to our base until the teaching started up again and no-one knew when that would be. There were also teachers there who had returned from their R&R and who were waiting for transportation to be arranged – never a simple matter. There was, therefore, a fair amount of down time…most of it was downtime actually.
We had to do our twice a day check-in at 7am and 7pm but, other than that, we were free to amuse ourselves as we saw fit (within limits, of course). Three times a day, most of us would head over to the feeding trough (DFac); some of the teachers were even going to the midnight session if they were still awake. We all look forward to the meals not only because the food is good and we might even be hungry (this happens relatively seldom when you’re eating full meals 3X/day) but because it creates a structure to an otherwise unstructured day. It also offers the possibility of a bit of a social life, some chat, some news or, even some gossip.
In the MWR, there’s a computer lab with Internet access, an extra large screen TV with a fairly large selection of DVDs and big comfy black couches to lounge in, pool tables, a big poker table, a dart board, an enormous selection of games and a pretty large selection of books that you can help yourself to or donate to. There is also a room with high round tables and bar chairs where you can eat popcorn and drink tea or instant coffee and…. sing karaoke. In the evening, this is a fairly popular activity with, obviously, some range of skill. Some of the teachers played Scrabble twice a day; Richard, our Brit, was very keen on that as well as on darts and was always looking for a partner for one or the other.
I used the computer lab and played Scrabble once but I was more interested in wandering around the FOB examining things. I liked walking up to the blue dome – formerly a mosque, now an Iraqi souq – (and looking around the shops, going and sitting at a picnic table outside the Green Bean and having an espresso, wandering amongst the CHUs and just indulging my native nosiness by looking for new things that I hadn’t noticed before. People-watching, especially the Iraqi vendors kept me occupied, as did hanging outside The Babylon Centre when Iraqi, US and NATO VIPs were disembarking from their armoured vehicles. Some very high flyers here so, good fun! There was an APB in The Babylon Centre one day at lunch time so I got to see inside. It was just a big hall with lots of white satin-covered banquet tables around the periphery and auditorium seating.
Probably one of the chief, and pleasantest, surprises for me in this whole experience has been being up close and personal with the US military (army and air force). I don’t really know that I’d had any clear notions or expectations of them as group, but I’ll confess I’d had a sort of vague feeing of disregard for them, based on certain media images and anecdotal information I’d picked up here and there. I am now, however, a huge fan of US Forces, at least with respect to their hospitality and manners. Almost all of my experiences, from Charlie Company in CRC to the present, have been exceptionally positive.
My time in Union III offered an interesting opportunity to contrast US and NATO forces. US Forces officers on Union III (and they’re all officers here, many high-ranking) are, almost without exemption, warm, friendly and courteous. Whether they are walking down the “street”, passing you in the corridor or sitting in the DFac, they will greet you with a ‘Good Morning Ma’am, how are you?’ or something similar, even if it’s just a nod and smile. If they happen to be sitting at the same table in the DFac, they’ll almost always make some friendly conversation and try to be as helpful as possible. There is such genuine wide-open sociability and neighborliness and little, if any, sense of class or restrictiveness. I’ve had loads of casual, friendly conversations with USFI captains, majors and colonels but never once got so much as a nod or a smile from a NATO counterpart. One day, during dinner, a fellow struck up a conversation with one of my (female) Texan colleagues; they talked fishing, food, places they had in common and, eventually, he segued himself over to talking about his recent divorce and a “young lady” he’s been having coffee dates with. I’d been quiet up ‘til then but made a couple of supportive comments which made him so happy I got a big hug after dinner. The next day he introduced himself as “Paul” and I found out he’s the commander of one the bases here. It’s a wonderful aspect and all you Americans out there can be very proud.
By Sunday, all the mraps and dogs had left and the FOB seemed very quiet (their engines had been running 24/7 for 3 days and it had become white sound. Apparently there were some “incoming” sirens last night but I didn’t hear them.
On Wednesday (Mar 2) those of us who didn’t have one yet were issued PLB’s (Personal Locator Beacon). Colonel Soracco cheerfully told us that if we ever fell out of a helicopter and had to push the button – “and for God’s sake, DON’T – it’s not like TV and it would take quite a while for anyone to reach us. We have to carry them wherever we go. It’s like having your own personal GPS and the satellite can track you wherever in the world you are. How cool is that?