A Day in the Field – Month 1

This is a portion of the account I wrote about my first day in the field visiting construction sites. I didn’t know what I was doing on all sorts of levels. My background is not construction management, so I didn’t know what we were looking at or for during these visits. I’d been around military and guns, but not in a threatening situation, so I was interested in the non-verbal interactions taking place between the many armed men. I hadn’t been in Iraq long enough to know which uniformed Iraqis were likely to belong to which official agency, nor did I know the implications apparent in those uniforms. I felt like I was learning a lot of new things very quickly. I loved it.

August 2006

I went out in the field yesterday to tour some of the construction sites belonging to contracts that I’ll administer soon. The man I’ll be replacing, Ted, was my tour guide, and the office commander, a Lt Colonel, invited himself along as well.

Our convoy consisted of the standard three armored Land Cruisers. I rode in the lead vehicle with a personal security detail (PSD) driver and navigator. Ted and the Lt Colonel rode in the second vehicle with a driver and a guard. The third vehicle generally holds a driver and two gunners, one in the front passenger seat, and one in the back cargo area looking out through an open window or hatch, getting bounced around eating dust. Riding in the front vehicle is considered most dangerous, an equivalent to walking point. I suspect I was chosen for the position because the Lt Colonel is considered (far) more important than I am in the pecking order of the office, and Ted knows what he’s talking about so he was the logical companion to the colonel.

Perfectly happy with the arrangement, I settled into the back seat and took it all in. I was fascinated by the vigilance applied to traveling on the roads of Iraq. The navigator called the route and all obstacles, approaching vehicles, people on foot near the route, safe havens along the way, and anything else that caught his eye, keeping up a constant patter over the radio using a verbal shorthand that took awhile for me to decipher … white truck approaching fast left three hundred [meters]; two pax [souls: people] on foot right berm ten o’clock two hundred [meters]; [turn] right-right eight hundred past feature; bump; IP check point five hundred -six [men] at front, five longs [guns], waving us through … one clear [through the checkpoint safely]…feature ahead five hundred …

Riding in the client vehicle, the middle or second of a convoy, I’m told that none of that chatter is audible. The navigator’s radio feeds the ear mics of each man on the team, rather than coming over the radios mounted in each Land Cruiser. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be put in the lead vehicle again, so I’m glad that I had this experience. Now I have some idea of what the men watch for as we travel off base. I’d only have guessed otherwise.

The first site that we visited today was an electrical substation that was pretty well destroyed during one of the wars (Iran or US, I don’t know). The reconstruction contractor is French, and I’m told the company has never worked on substations, which may account (at least in part) for the fact that all five of their contracts are almost a year behind schedule.

When we approached the site, armed men were milling around outside and inside a locked gate. Aside from the dangers inherent in doing work for the Coalition Forces, a lot of looting that goes on at electrical substation construction sites. Site security costs are written into this and all government construction contracts. Most contractors will use those costs to hire twenty-four hour armed guards, and nearly all of the construction sites in southern Iraq have protective fences constructed around them, either cinder block, plastered block, or wire.

As we turned off the highway onto a dirt track to cross a big area of bare dirt in front of the substation, the contractor’s armed security guards quickly moved into defensive positions that offered clear field of fire, kicking our own PSD team into high alert.

People from our offices have visited this site before, but our PSD team said that they didn’t recognize these guards. A changing of the guard is never a good sign, apparently, being a possible sign that militia or a tribal group has gained control. One of our trucks cautiously approached the gate while the other two hung back at a safe distance. We watched one of our PSD men climb out of the vehicle at the gate and talk to one of the armed contractor guards. His mic was open, but again it fed the radios each man on the team carries, so I wasn’t in on what was being said. I watched arms wave around, then the men shook hands. Our man waved us ahead. We followed that lead vehicle through the gate.

Inside the yard our drivers parked our three vehicles in positions that offered a quick exit. Our drivers stayed in the vehicles while the other men opened our doors to escort us out. They immediately herded us together then kept us together, pushing us by moving in close and lightly bumping against us like border collies herding sheep. While we greeted the contractor’s project manager, one PSD man stood at each of our elbows on a man-to-man defense. Their eyes constantly scanned the hired guns positioned around the perimeter of the site and moving around the two-story brick substation building. Three other PSD men spread out, checking around corners of the brick shell of the building, choosing berms to stand atop that would offer good fields of fire. There were a lot of guns watching guns.

We toured the site with the contractor project manager, a young man with cold eyes. His contempt for me was transparent, though no one commented on it. As we strolled through the yard and building our hired guns trotted at our heels and stopped us to clear areas ahead of us. Another layer of our guards orbited thirty meters out from our little pack. The contractor guards would constantly shift, and our men would immediately shift in answer. My PSD guard kept muttering into his radio, eyes scanning around in all directions. At one point he pulled a cell phone out of a pocket and spoke quietly into it for a few minutes, eyes still flickering from one contractor guard to another.

Touring the site I wasted about five minutes trying to comprehend the dense and alien language of electrical substations by following the conversation Ted and the Lt Colonel were having with the contractor’s manager, who had a nearly impenetrable accent. Frankly all the orbiting guns were too distracting. I was interested in how our PSD men deployed at sites, so I was keeping an eye on them. The contractor guards were tracking us with guns half raised, so I tried to follow where they were in relation to our men. At the same time, I was prudently noting places that I might dive for cover if someone sneezed. While busy with those tasks, I was practically wilting in the 120F heat with the thirty pounds of steel plate on my back and an itchy helmet on my head. The complicated nature of the situation struck me as comical at the time. Once as I practically tripped over a clod of dirt while craning my neck to see where the 50 cal was set up, unable to hold back my amusement any longer, I grinned at my guard. He probably thought I was demented.

When we’d finished the fifteen minute tour of the grounds, Ted and the Lt Colonel disappeared into the office trailer to check designs. Being entirely ignorant of anything remotely related to electrical substation designs and momentarily curious about other things, I chose to stay outside and have a smoke with my PSD guard. He confirmed that these contractor security guards were unfamiliar and suspiciously aggressive. He also told me that while we’d been touring the site he’d received a phone call alerting the team that someone had hit an IED on the road we’d planned to use to get back to base, and another team had taken some small arms fire. An Iraqi politician had been assassinated last night by a northern militia group, precipitating a spike in violence, so the province would go under curfew at 2pm.

In the end our hyper-vigilance was unnecessary – or successful. We left the site without incident a few minutes after Ted and the LTC emerged from the office.

The second site we visited was a water treatment plant not too far distant from the substation. This site was located in a walled yard within another walled yard. Our PSD team had never been to this site, so when we were confronted with armed men at the outside wall, we again held back while one of our men spoke with the guards. The guards didn’t want to let us in at first, but our man persisted. After almost five minutes of arm gestures and head shaking, they waved us past. One by one our trucks drove slowly through the gate and turned left, following a track to the gate on the interior wall.

As we passed through that interior gate, two Iraqi Police (IP) emerged from a stucco building straight ahead of us, setting off a rapid-fire chattering exchange between our PSD men. The IP are considered completely untrustworthy, the navigator told me in a quick aside. Their ranks are littered with insurgents, and/or tribal connections that outweigh any responsibility they might carry toward national interests of law and order. The mortar attack we had the first night I arrived on base is known to have been launched by the IP – from another of my electrical substation projects, by the way. (?!)

We cruised slowly past the IP, our men staring at them, them staring at us, our men with hands on guns, and the IP with their guns held down but casually tracking our progress by rotating in an arc across the ground halfway between them and our trucks. As we drove around to the back side of the building, the IP walked slowly around the corner of the building to watch us with their flat, hard experessions.

Again the PSD men parked our trucks for a quick exit, and this time they suggested we make our visit a quick one. Construction on the project had just begun, so there wasn’t much to see in any case. We took a quick walk around the cleared pad and climbed right back into the Land Cruisers. The IP stood on the front porch of the building and watched us drive away.

In order to get back to base before curfew, we traveled the main highway back to camp, the same road on which a truck had been hit by an IED earlier in the day. Our team figured the road couldn’t be much safer, having been cleared the hard way that morning. We didn’t see any sign of the IED that had detonated, but did run by a burned out truck in the road at another location. We spent a good part of the trip running on the wrong side of the road to get around convoys, a common maneuver appropriately referred to as ‘running kamikaze’. I can see how this could potentially be more unnerving than the thought of running into an IED, as an IED exists only in the imagination until you’re hit while running kamikaze you get to watch the cars coming straight at you for quite some time.

Just outside the base we veered off onto a dirt track shortcut. Lined up beside the kilometer long track are tens of bombed out shells of tanks.

In Iraq every experience, no matter how mundane, contains some facet that makes it new and engaging.

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