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March 22, 2005

News from the sandbox.

From a Marine just back from "In the Box." Welcome home, Marine. And a big thank you to the kind folks of Bangor, Maine (read to the end, and you'll understand)!

This will be my last mass e-mailing (and I know that most everyone has been waiting for me to write those words). As some of you know, I have returned from the sandbox. For others of you (perhaps the majority) the phrase „better luck next time‰ has taken on new meaning. Regardless of your thoughts and opinions, It's wonderful to be back and *almost* home (I'm stuck on the left coast until the end of May).

Before you reach for the Delete key, let me bore you with a recap of my past few weeks in wonderful Iraq. I believe that my last tale of woe had yours truly working the night shift within the MEF‚s air shop following the take-down of Fallujah. Perhaps much will be written on that topic by those with better writing skills and better access than I, but it really was an eye-opener to be part of something that big and lethal. Perhaps that experience of helping to plan and execute the air war for a large scale combined arms operation in such a small chunk of sky shorted me out.

Some of you may remember some news stories from last fall showing Marines
in various locations in Iraq having one or two beers. Real beers, not the non- alcoholic crap that DoD and KBR pushes on the Grunts. The concept was noble. As per Marine Corps tradition, wherever Marines are on or about the 10th of November we always pause to celebrate the founding of our Corps. The question at MEF headquarters in early October was simple: how do we celebrate the upcoming Marine Corps birthday ?

The senior Enlisted leadership had a plan that was elegant both in concept and execution. The Marine Corps has its own cargo aircraft (much to the annoyance of the Air Force). Why not send the KC-130s on a beer run? And that is exactly what happened. Lest any one think that the Marines were pulling one over on the other services in Iraq (some of you may know that alcoholic beverages are prohibited by General Order), the CG of the MEF (a three star) asked for and was granted permission for his Marines to have two beers in accordance of our annual celebration. Two C-130s loaded with beer landed at Al Taqquadum for further distribution to all major subordinate Marine commands. If you remember, I-MEF and most major Marine units were preoccupied in early November of last year with the former tenants of Al-Fallujah who were, to say the least, evicted. So, in one of the few times in the Corps history, a fair percentage of active duty Marines were unable to partake of *traditional festivities* on the 10th. With two KC‚s worth of beer nearly under safe lock and key (some of the *guards* were rumored to have helped themselves in the days prior; showing up drunk for duty is also rumored to not be a career enhancing move.) that date for a drink to toast the future of the Corps was postponed till early December.

Unfortunately, I was sent off to Camp Victory for a planning evolution on
operation Al-Hariyah, a series of limited objective counter insurgency operations in the northern Babil area (south of Baghdad). Some of the planning that was worked out for air operations during Fallujah was directly lifted to this new operation and some stuff we had to roll up our sleeves and create from scratch. However the results were sometimes spectacular, as can be seen in the attached photo. The photo shows what happens when a 2000 lb. guided bomb hits its target (note that two bombs were used, but that the second one has yet to hit but is visible in the red circle). Some things are worth not having a beer for nearly seven months.

The rest of this fascinating look into the belly is in the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry. I recommend you continue!

Following the take down of Fallujah and the other operations that we were involved with, most of us were looking forward to a break in the tempo. It was December, the weather had turned to dog chow (cold and damp, it actually did snow one night, and when it did not snow it rained, turning the seas of ankle-deep dust into seas of boot-sucking mud). One of the disadvantages of working night crew is that there are times during the day when you are not around to defend yourself. That's how I got *volunteered* to assist in the election efforts. I was assigned to be the liaison officer with 24 MEU down in the northern Babil area (remember the bomb strike?) at a location known as FOB (Forward Operating Base) Kalsu. In actuality the area was a Shiite strong hold with a very effective Iraqi special forces-type police organization, referred to as the Hilla SWAT. Very effective. However it was still considered injun country and everyone wore flacks and kevlar's (with the exceptions of when we were working in a hardened building or while sleeping) and everyone had a rifle (in addition to our pistols).

I got the chance to spend the X-mas period down at FOB Kalsu. It was interesting walking to morning chow on the 25th, a steady bone-soaking mist just a few degrees above freezing turning the walking paths into a slick surface like an ice-rink coated with cooking oil, with the sounds of morning call to prayer blaring form the local mosque in the distance. Needless to say, it sucked. At least we had each other to share our misery and isolation. Fortunately my time down at Kalsu was limited, and I was able to return to the relative luxuries of Fallujah.

The elections were a busy experience. Far more busy that it needed to be.
The take down of Fallujah was simple by comparison in several respects. The most important one being who was in charge. During Fallujah it was simple. The Commanding General gave his guidance and everyone executed to accomplish his desires. The elections, on the other hand, had the United Nations once again showing its institutionalized ineptitude. The fact that the Iraqis had an election in such a sort period of time is not as impressive as that
fact that they had a election in such a short period of time under the *guidance* of the UN. I have never witnessed such a Keystone Cops boondoggle in my life. The worst part of it all is that we lost an aircraft with a flight crew of four and a passenger load of 28, for a total of 32 souls on board lost. It was a bad night for many, but a lot worse for the 32 on board aircraft callsign Sampson two-four. The worst part for myself was that all I could do was act as a staff officer and not be able to alter the outcome in any way, shape or form.

The elections did happen, and many events were happening behind the scenes. The election sites were run and staffed by Iraqis (no US or Coalition personnel were allowed in or near the polling places except to offer emergency medical aide and security for that aide if needed). However, in many Sunni areas we could not find enough local people to operate the polling sites (if you think the polls in Ohio during our last presidential election had problems, you haven't seen anything yet!) The solution was to hire election workers from other areas of Iraq and then transport them to the polling sites. We (the Marines) had no problem in getting personnel to work the sites (the $500 paycheck we were offering didn‚t hurt. That‚s about a year's wages for a five day period of work). Our *volunteers* were from the Najaf area in southern Iraq. They has no problem in going to any of the sites in western Iraq (Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit and several other garden spots) but when we told a small sub-group (about 400 of the nearly 1200 folks we hired) that they were going into the Army‚s area around Mosul, we nearly had a riot ("No Mosul! No Mosul!" was the chant). Compounding the problem was the Air Force's refusal to assist with C-130 aircraft ("We can't fly into Najaf"). Fine. No problem. We used our own (Marine) KC-130‚s (with the flight crews put on waivers due to the xtended
amount of hours they had to fly to support this last minute tasking in addition to the normally scheduled missions).

If you think we were busy enough with the elections, think again. Along with the elections, we were in the thick of planning to get the replacement units into Iraq, conduct a 2 ˆ 3 week turnover, and then get the folks being relived back home. In some cases the units brought all their gear out (which also required getting the new units' gear in), or if we were just replacing personnel, conducting a joint inventory /inspection and then signing the gear over. This would normally have been a headache all by itself, but we were doing this during the elections. (plus some units were coming over with a much smaller footprint of gear and or capability). In one instance we had to plan the replacement of a MEU (a Battalion-sized combat unit that has its own organic aircraft) with an Army reserve unit with no aviation what-so-ever (it took months to get the Army to support the Army).

Finally it came time for me to get my butt out of Iraq. Murphy still wasn't done with us yet. Iraq in the winter is a cold place. It‚s not that bad when you have the proper equipment to stay warm (such as winter weight sleeping bags). However, any items that were not part of our hand carry was taken away from us three days prior to us getting on the charter airliner going back home. In fact, the gear was taken away from us up in Taqquadam (a USMC air base and supply depot to the west of Fallujah). I‚ve never been so cold in my life. However, when you're just a handful of hours away from getting on the freedom bird, you can endure damn near anything. Of note, we had to get from Iraq to Kuwait via a RAAF C-130 (Royal Australian Air Force). Needless to say, those boys operate just a little bit differently that US pilots.

We flew the first hour of the flight very low and very fast. An E ticket ride if ever there was one!

Our trip back had one significant hick-up: We landed in Bangor, Maine to refuel in the middle of a blizzard. We were allowed to get off the aircraft and go into the passenger terminal. Now mind you that this is a charted aircraft with 300 + soldiers and Marines in desert utilities. As I mentioned, this was in the middle of a blizzard, one that had been going on for several days. Yet, in the middle of the work week, in weather that even most seasoned down-easter would not venture out in, we walked down the jet-way to the standing applause of 30 hardy souls who just wanted to say that they cared. And if that was not enough, a group called "Maine Troop Greeters" welcomed us. This group of folks provided us with free coffee and cookies, and a free phone call anywhere
in the US on the 20 or so cell phones they had for our use. Wow!

Life here back at Camp Pendleton is starting to get into a routine. Gxxx has come out to join me, and we are renting a house on the beach. Kind of like Fallujah, except here the beach has an ocean attached and people do not shoot at you on the roads (oops, this is So.Cal- they Do shoot at you on the roads here)

Thanks to one and all for putting up with my attempts at writing, but more importantly for your kind thoughts. If you all would please continue with them. Just channel them over to the distant sand of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Trust me, it helps

Semper Fi and Semper Gumby

(Always Faithful)and (Always Flexible)