Sunday, November 26, 2006

DOING GREAT, BUT BUSY! I apologize that I have not had more time to write... it's not due to a lack of interesting experiences, but rather to a hectic schedule. Now that I am getting settled into a routine, I tend to travel throughout the week, visiting Marines at various posts (where I often can't access the internet at all). When I return to my "home base" of Camp Fallujah on the weekend I am busy processing all the interviews I conducted and photos I took during the week. If I'm lucky, I finish that process before it's time to go out and start again. There are so many stories here and so many Marines doing great deeds that SHOULD make the history books, that I wish there were more hours in each day and more days in each week.

On Thanksgiving Day I had a unique and unexpected opportunity to conduct a brief interview with the Secretary of the Navy while he was in Iraq visiting troops. The comment that resonated the most with me was how impressed he was with the high morale he found among the Marines and Sailors in Iraq. I have to say that, among my own sampling of the troops I have interviewed, the Secretary's observation is right on the money. Each day I am uplifted by the positive energy I encounter among these noble young people. By and large they believe very deeply in what they are here to do and are convinced that they are making a difference. They are also realistic. I have been impressed with the sophistication of even junior troops. They recognize the inherent differences between our cultures and continually emphasize the importance of patience as we strive to help the Iraqi people turn in a new direction.

A few random observations about life here...
- It struck me as somehow odd that everyone at church this morning was armed except the Chaplain and the choir (I think the choir had left their weapons on the side of the stage though.)
- The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) folks organize a race at Camp Fallujah once a month for all us deployed running nuts. My friends back home in the Syracuse Chargers will be amused that one section of the course is known as "Purple Heart Road" because it occasionally recieves indirect fire and one runner was actually wounded during his lunchtime run a while back. This morning's race was a 9.5 miler (I finished 4th in 67 minutes - not bad for only training once or twice a week).
- The food on all the major bases is great. Lots of people complain about contractors like KBR; but few of them are in Iraq! (At least not in the chowhall!) KBR also runs the laundry service, which is so efficient that we joke the laundry people should be in charge of the whole war effort. I should note that there are many troops in remote outposts who do NOT have regular access to this great chow... we need to figure out how to get ALL the care packages to them.

That's all for now. I'll try to write again soon. It's o330 here now and morning will come all too soon. Thanks to everyone for their continued thoughts, prayers and kindness.

Monday, November 20, 2006

LtCol "Odie" VanOpdorp (left), Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, 24th Marines recently hosted me for day, giving me an inside look at the challenges his Marines face daily in the complex environment of Fallujah. It's a small world in the Marine Corps. Odie and I have know each other for almost 20 years and are two of the five officers from 4th & 5th platoons of the Fox Co 1989 TBS class currently working in this AO. A sixth just returned home after a successful tour here.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

BATTLEFIELD REUNIONS AND WARRIOR DIPLOMATS... I recently spent a day with the Battalion Commander of 1st Battalion, 24th Marines and his security detachment as they visited their company positions and outposts around the city of Fallujah in the Al Anbar province of Iraq. LtCol “Odie” VanOpdorp, a TBS (Marine Officer Basic School) classmate and old friend, and his Marines were great hosts, giving me a first-hand view of their AO (area of operations) and the diverse challenges they face there each day.

The “Wolverines” of 1/24 are a reserve unit from Detroit, Michigan which has been “plus’d up” with augments from the active forces as well as other reserve units, including a number of veterans from previous Iraq tours. Each day the Marines and sailors of 1/24 fill multiple roles; always warriors, but also ambassadors, teachers, and peacemakers as the mission requires. Their task is to counter the activities of insurgents and enhance overall security in the area. Enhanced security will, in turn, lead to improvements in the economy, local governance, education, and other factors.

Fallujah has made great strides since the all-out war to wrestle the city from insurgent in the fall of 2004, but there is still a significant hostile presence. This reality makes sharp eyes, heightened awareness and quick thinking necessities for the Marines who call Fallujah home. Signs reading “complacency kills” can be seen everywhere on Marine bases, particularly at the gates leaving their secure compounds. There is no such thing as a “routine convoy.” Every Marine is highly focused during each moment of their trips in and around the city - scanning for potential IEDs or snipers and alert for any unexplained shift in “atmospherics” which might reveal that something is amiss.

Their daily duties call not only for razor sharp reactions but also for wisdom and discretion. They must balance the necessity of self-defense and “force protection” against the moral and strategic imperative of not harming the innocent civilians they are here to help. Young Marines are required every day to make life and death decisions (and the life in danger is most often their own). Thousands of these decision points happen every day. Incredibly, these young warriors make them with 99.9% accuracy. So please don’t judge too harshly when an error is made. Any of us would be hard pressed to do better.

Amidst all this, the Marines of 1/24 (like their counterparts across the country) carry out their duties with a resiliency and esprit that is truly inspiring. LtCol VanOpdorp summed it up at the onset of my visit, “It is a privilege to lead men such as this.” For me it is a privilege to just be around them and to do my small part to ensure their actions will be remembered.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I'M NOW AT CAMP FALLUJAH, IRAQ... After a long journey, I reached my final destination, Camp Fallujah in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq, on 13 November. I am still in the process of getting settled in, but wanted to briefly update all those who have been following my progress.

After less than 36 hours, a number of observations are already jumping out at me... The first note is the incredible dedication with which the Marines and other service people here pursue their various missions. Fourteen to sixteen hour days seem to be about the norm, and 18-20 hours are not uncommon. The second note is the complexity of the mission. People in Washington (and elsewhere) talk a lot about "turning over" to the Iraqis more quickly. I'm sure there is no group of people in the world more supportive of that concept than the American men and women here in Iraq. However, they are the ones tasked to deal with the very messy and complex reality of what "turning over" means. On the ground, it's far more complex than simply recruiting soldiers and giving them a gun. Training, equipment, maintenance, pay, and a thousand other details all have to be painstakingly coordinated. But have faith - a lot of very capable folks are working hard every day to make all those things happen.

Thanks to everyone back home for their support of the troops here. Throughout my journey, I've seen the signed banners, cards, drawings from school kids, care packages and supplies that have been sent by caring folks back home. They are making it here and are appreciated on two levels; not only for the materials themselves, but because they are a symbol of the fact that people remember they are here and are concerned about them.

Friday, November 10, 2006

ON DECK IN KUWAIT FOR THE MARINE CORPS BIRTHDAY... I arrived safely at the Kuwait City International Airport on the evening of the 9th and made it here to the Ali Al Salem air base shortly after midnight, just in time for the Marine Corps' 231st birthday, which is today, 10 November 2006. All is well here and I am slated to head to Iraq tomorrow. Just a short post for the moment because all the Marines passing through the base are gathering in a few minutes to celebrate the birthday together. More soon!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

ON TO KUWAIT... I wrapped up my check-in process with I MEF today. Tomorrow I will begin the long (24 hours plus) journey to Kuwait, my final stop before actually heading into Iraq to begin my mission.

My brief time here at Pendleton has been a pleasant reminder of how much fun it is to simply be around Marines. Even in the most ordinary and unexciting circumstances (like helping a Lieutenant Colonel check into a new unit), their character shines through... They are professional, positive, funny, spirited and, above all, they have heart. I am enthusiastic about the chance to be surrounded by these wonderful young people and to be charged with recording their thoughts and deeds in far more interesting circumstances for the next few months.

The other aspect that I have been aware of, but observed quite clearly while here, is how incredibly experienced our force is at present. A large percentage of even the youngest cohort of troops have already completed at least one tour in Iraq and many have done two or even three tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan in the past four years.

My thanks go out to the Marines and Sailors of the MEF Headquarters Group, who helped me to wrap up my processing here so quickly and efficiently. My thoughts now turn to the next group of Marines I will be privileged to spend time with...

Allow me to wish a Happy Birthday tonight to all Marines, present and past, in the event that I don't have the opportunity to log in again before 10 November. Happy 231st Birthday, Marines. Semper Fidelis.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

ON THE WAY... After nearly four weeks of preparations, I am finally on my way to Iraq. I am writing this entry from a wifi spot in the Chicago airport en route to California. I will be there for a couple days picking up some additional gear and checking into Camp Pendleton's I MEF (the Marine Corps' 1st Marine Expeditionary Force), which is the senior Marine command in Iraq right now. More soon... thanks to everyone for their ongoing support and interest.