LSA ANACONDA/BALAD AIR FORCE BASE, IRAQ — A woman who apparently got her training in a Greyhound bus station — a really big, important Greyhound bus station — says, over the loudspeakers: “Attention all personnel. There has been an indirect fire attack. All clear, all clear, all clear. I say again, All clear, all clear, all clear.”
This may be a recording; or, maybe not. In any case, this disembodied Greyhound-bus-calling voice, known to some as “The Big Voice,” is announcing a mortar attack somewhere at Balad — which, not incidentally, is called “Mortaritaville” by its inhabitants. Sometimes, the mortar shells explode. Sometimes, they don’t. In the former case, you hear a crump. In the latter case, Big Voice comes on and announces that there’ll be a controlled detonation, to dispose of a shell that didn’t explode, and then you hear a whvist-crump, which is the dead mortar round being blown up.
This has the odd effect of turning Big Voice into an annoyance. If you hear her, nothing’s going to happen, except that you can’t continue your conversation until she shuts up — she is very loud, and takes her time with her announcements.
Of course, if the mortar round actually hits you, you don’t hear the lady at all. Which saves you a certain annoyance.
There are rumors and stories about mortars. One is — no way to verify it — that the insurgents pay local farmers to fire them into the air base. According to this story, the insurgent gives the farmer, say, $200, a mortar tube, and a round. The farmer puts the tube in a haystack, aims it more or less at the base, drops in the round, and then runs like hell. That’s why, the story says, the mortar fire tends to be ineffectual.
Another reason may be nerves. A remote-controlled observation aircraft a couple of months ago spotted some insurgents setting up a mortar tube, and blew them up with a rocket. You can see the observation craft sometimes, hovering high above the wire around the base, but at other times, they disappear into the haze. Knowing that they’re up there, though, might tend to make a mortaring farmer a little hasty in his preparations.
Another story: the same farmer sets up a mortar, drops in an ice cube, then the mortar round, and takes a hike. When the ice cube melts, the round hits the bottom of the tube, and fires. By this time, the farmer is down at the market spending his $200. Less the cost of the ice cube.
On one side of the base is a perpetually burning garbage dump, with a perpetual plume of garbage-scented smoke overhead, and quite a few incoming mortar rounds. There’s a theory that the insurgents are using the smoke plume as an aiming point. There’s another theory that so many rounds land there because that’s all the farther the mortars can fire, from wherever they’re at.
There was a decent snowfall, with a little freezing rain, at Balad on Jan. 11. Enough for a security guard to make a slushy snowball. In Minnesota, in October, we all would have said, “Clipper,” and turned up our collars and forgotten about it. At Balad, the rain turned the surface, which is a combination of sand and dust, into mud. Tan mud. The amount of moisture was insignificant, but then … it didn’t evaporate, it didn’t sink in, it didn’t do anything. It just sat there, making new mud every time anyone took a step. For days, everything that wasn’t gravel was mud — and the mud stuck to anything it touched: boots, pants, floors, sidewalks. You’d get it on the back of a pants leg, not know it, then cross your legs, and transfer it to the front of the pants, and from there to your elbows, then to your face, and by the end of the day, you were a mudball. And it never dried up. It was like some kind of mud miracle that we don’t have in Minnesota. Maybe they do in Wisconsin.
Many people in Minnesota have an image of the National Guard as guys who provide security and aid at local disasters — tornadoes and floods and forest fires. And the Guard does do that. But for some time, the Guard has also been an expeditionary force, and for veterans, the Iraq deployment was no big surprise. Staff Sgt. Duane R. “Rick” Gendreau of St. Louis Park has been in the Guard for 18 years. He is a veteran crew chief, which means that he is qualified to do the maintenance of the 2-147 AHB’s Blackhawks, and when they’re flying, he goes along as a door gunner.
“Back when I first joined, I don’t think a lot of the guys thought about deployments when they signed up,” he said. “Then the world changed. It just changed. Now, I think a deployment is pretty much expected. Eighteen years ago, that was not the case.
“Basically, when we’re flying, the crew chief is in charge of everything behind the pilots — they can’t see into the back very well, and if there’s something going on there, it’s up to the crew chief to stay on top of it,” Gendreau said. This year-long venture into Iraq is Gendreau’s first deployment to the Middle East, but he has been deployed on other occasions to Guatemala, Germany and Norway. His wife, Kirsten, an accountant, is active in the Guard’s Family Readiness Group and also maintains a website for the 2-147’s Alpha Company.
There are private security guards everywhere, armed with M16s. They tend to be Peruvians and Ugandans. The Peruvians are usually short and wiry, and the Ugandans tall and thick. Both sets of guards look like they could pull your arms off if they wished, but they tend to be pretty friendly.
Everywhere in Iraq, the one constant is pallet-loads of water bottles, which sit around on the ground, in the middle of anywhere you might care to name, and along the walls outside the residential areas. Most installations have coolers full of water bottles. They are free, and you are asked to take as many of these as you can possibly use.
American soldiers basically work a six-day week, and average nine or 10 hours a day. Everything is fully staffed every day, for 24 hours. At 3 o’clock in the morning, there will be people walking around outside, going to and from work.
Some things never change, like the Army’s love affair with acronyms. Here is a paragraph from an Army information office, instructions to reporters:
“Take the shuttle from BIAP to Camp Stryker. The bus picks up at BIAP, outside the terminal, every hour at the bottom of the hour. When you get to Stryker, get manifested on a RHINO in the KBR tent next to the bus stop. Airmen at BIAP can direct you where you need to go for transportation to the CPIC.”
Every embedded reporter has to carry a set of orders, usually a couple of single-spaced pages long. One set contained these acronyms and abbreviations: APO, DoD, SecDef, Msg, DTG, CENTCOM, IAW, MNF-I FRAGO, OASD-PA, DSN, LSA, KCIA, IBA, SAPI, E-SAPI, ACH, BX/PX, USARCENT PAO, MNF-I CPIC, ITO, BIAP LTC, GS, FWD.
The meaning of some of these is known to many people; and many of them are known to some people; but none of them are known to all people.
Abraham Lincoln said that.
John Camp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling novelist who writes under the pen name John Sandford. He can be reached at jcamp [at] minnpost [dot] com.