Archive for the ‘Who Goes There’ Category

My Brothers

February 13, 2010

One of my favorite PSD guards, I’ll call him G, tracked me down five days ago. He sent a short, sweet email that catalyzed an excited flurry of communication. We compared injuries, traded photographs of our bombed out trucks, asked personal questions, sent each other love and kisses. He passed me on to another PSD friend, and another, who passed me onto yet another … my angels, my guns, my guards, my big brothers, my broken hearts, my strength, my baby brothers …  God, I miss them. I’m soaring on a flurry of sweetness and warm hearts.

G’s truck was blown up about a month prior to mine, and no one would tell me, at the time, how he was doing. “A broken back, other bad injuries, Seren, it’s not looking good. We don’t know.” OK, maybe. Or maybe they knew every detail. I never really figured out the secret rules of their secrets. Some things were off limits but I was never sure which, or when, or why.

I didn’t know any of the PSD men well, yet I knew some of them very well. We weren’t friends in the sense of sharing opinions or feelings, intimacies or life stories. We worked together in delicate harmony of respect: I told them where to take me and when, and they told me how we’d get there, how long we could stay.  I trusted them to protect me, and they trusted me to stay alert and follow orders. I was the reason they were employed, and I couldn’t do my job without them. We grew into a sort of deep but narrow, limited friendship by spending many hours together on the road, watching each other act and interact in a volatile environment. We grew to depend on each other, to trust each other in certain important ways.

Many of their clients treated PSD men like servants or adversaries. I tried to treat them like the experts they were. Some of their clients – my colleagues – argued about routes, time on the ground, the intel behind their decisions. I asked the men what they thought was best and trusted their decisions. Some of them had been living in war zones all over the world for two decades. I’m going to argue with that?

We got to know each other over hours and hours on the road together: sweating in hot little Land Cruisers, walking down roads under the relentless desert sun wearing thirty, fifty, eighty pounds of armor and ammo on our backs. We watched each other defuse hot situations involving guns or angry contractors, belligerent Oil Police or Port authorities. We watched each other squirm in uncomfortable situations, and brood heavily over problems and tensions. We shared deceptions, lying to colonels and generals in order to make our own lives easier, and pushing agendas on behalf of each others’ interests. We shared water and candy and sandwiches. We shared hours of silence, naps bumping down dusty tracks through empty desert, winks behind the boss’ back, cigarettes in the thin shade of ratty trailers.

Each PSD team developed a unique personality. G’s team was mature, solid, impossible to shake. Where another team might move-move-move at the rattle of SAF up the block, these men would step behind walls and wait it out, assessing, watching, thinking, sensing. To a man they were calm, friendly, curious about the history and people of Iraq, thoughtful about the reconstruction effort. They made friends with children, fed families along the frequently-traveled routes, wondered how land ownership worked, pondered Iraq’s future. They asked questions and engaged the answers with intelligence.

We got lost on the desert following a faint dirt track, finally laughing, wondering if we’d strayed all the way into Kuwait. G tapped me on the shoulder and politely tugged me back into a doorway when SAF rattled off down the street. One of G’s teammates was insulted on my behalf when an Iraqi asked my age. Another teammate winked when the port official finally signed turnover papers that I was sure he’d find an excuse not to sign; “Good day, eh Seren?” he said quietly when the official walked out the door. “You looked worried.” He touched my arm gently and smiled, giving me a little bit of his confidence and assurance. G stared out across the blue water of the port, lost in time, looking like his heart was worn out.

The experts, my eyes and ears. My guns, my guards, my big brothers.

And sometimes my little brothers, the pain in their eyes almost too much to bear, the bravado a little too thin. I wanted to hug them, each of them, hold them close and hum quietly, taking them somewhere gentle and serene. I wanted to erase their memories of pulling bloody friends from beneath trucks and saluting coffins disappearing into the back of C130s. I wanted to erase the deep sadness in their eyes when they watched little children begging for water. I still do.

In this way we were friends: the whole world existed only in the present, and there we were.


Now we chatter through the ether, finding each other again. I’m excited; I’m touched that they worried for me – that they remember me.

My heart aches again for them, worries for them still in the zone, yet it soars and sings for them because they’re doing what they’re good at and they love what they do.

G wants me to call, day or night. I’m nervous. I’m scared now, of them, of G and of myself. Who are we now?



Who Goes There – Zeb

November 28, 2009

Major Zebediah Brighton: Operations

As LTC Slasher’s operations man, Zeb takes the brunt of the colonel’s insanity. Fully as anal as Slasher but lacking most of the micromanaging control issues and generally being capable of maintaining firm footing in common sense, Zeb is perfectly suited for micromanaging the micromanaging manager, effectively distracting the colonel from many of his most worthless obsessions and keeping him out of our business at critical times. A canny and diplomatic manipulator, Zeb is also a first rate schmoozer, and since his moral compass points him toward the good of others, we often benefit. Need a flight out on short notice? Special food items? An ‘in’ with the Brit Mil? If you’ve treated Zeb right and the cause is just, he will solve your problem.

The best way into Zeb’s circle of favor: make him laugh, compliment him frequently, and listen attentively and appreciatively to the endless collection of stories from his idyllic childhood in the wilds of rural California. Thinking quite highly of himself, the second two may become tedious, but they’ll pay off someday when you’re stuck in an operational morass, or when you’re looking for a witty after-work companion. Off the work grid, Zeb’s company guarantees clever repartee from a creative and loony mind.

Madly in love with a major stationed in Afghanistan, Zeb will fly to Hawaii to marry the sweetheart halfway through his tour. Under the desk during rocket attacks, bets are laid on whether he’ll be a laid-back, clever, creative and hilarious father whom his kids will adore, or a micromanaging, anal, prick of an officer father that his kids will grow to despise. It’s a tough call.

Zeb’s inflated self-importance concerning work matters and his occasional power plays directed at those he actually has no power over creates resentful enemies, while his generosity and quirky wit earn him an equal number of friends. If you duck under the ego he’s swinging around in the office and hunt him down for a late night movie, you’ll learn to love him.

Defining actions and characteristics:

  1. Won’t shut up about his idyllic childhood, basically running wild with his two little brothers in California
  2. Loves watching movies
  3. Frequently shows up in the DFAC with Brit Mil in tow, schmoozing

Why he stays:

He’s an officer; it’s not a choice. He might have volunteered though, even without orders. He seems to believe the reconstruction cause is just, and he’s generally appreciated here, which I’ve heard isn’t always the case at his home office.


[All names have been changed – OS]


Who Goes There: Just Too Jivin’ Jake

November 23, 2009

Just Too Jivin’ Jake: ConRep

A Vo-Tech educated, self-described biker dude electrician, Just Too Jivin’ Jake arrived in-country with the same deployment group that I was with. Now clean shaven, first impressions suggest a rather good looking, cheerful and friendly guy. Unfortunately, the friendliness is revealed to be almost creepily perky. Colleagues, bosses, friends and strangers alike are treated to a syrupy cheer most often encountered in car salesmen or obnoxiously over-doting old grandmothers from the fifties. Many people shake themselves off like a dog when Jake walks away, as if trying to dislodge the little balls of sticky smarm left clinging to the edges of their aura.

Compounding the unpleasant treacle, Jake spews intimate and unfortunate details of his private life within minutes of meeting someone, in the apparent misguided belief that this is interesting. (Though dying to be counted as a friend of the way-cool Brit PSD teams, this unregulated volcano of personal information guarantees a sort of appalled disgust from their end.) Astonishingly self-absorbed, he’s able to proceed with the details at length, once clocking a two-hour monologue after having just been introduced to the unfortunate victim (me).

Obviously, then, it takes only moments to learn that Jake has a wife and three teenage children at home. Through his supiciously energetic efforts to explain how and why his wife is the problem in their marriage, it becomes clear to everyone but him that his wife sounds smart and interesting and that he, in fact, is likely the problem. As his naval gazing progresses and total strangers are treated to a close-up view of his drug-addicted, recently arrested, or pregnant children, the general conclusion is that he seems to be needed at home: why is he in Iraq? Well, he’s always giving to others and needs some Jake time …

Apparently that includes dates with women in the next camp down the road.


If you’re in a meeting and someone says something that almost seems to have been intended as a joke but isn’t funny and in fact doesn’t really quite even make any sense, ignore it and proceed: it’s just Jake. To be fair – and to his credit – Just Too Jivin’ Jake arrived ignorant of anything having to do with governmental contracting, yet has worked hard to fill in the gaps. Having been under the questionable mentorship of Wo-Wo Wospecki, he was deprived of any really useful training. What has resulted could have been worse, though ignoring the contracts he claims that he doesn’t have to time to keep up with is not really a recommended strategy for success.

Too self-absorbed to be interesting, too odd to be comfortable, too familiar to be liked, Just Too Jivin’ Jake is best avoided.

Defining actions and characteristics:

  1. Greets people with My friend! whether you’re friends or not
  2. Tells jokes no one thinks are funny (or even really understands)
  3. Wears weird big black shoes with two inch thick soles, said to have springs in them.

Why he stays:

This is his time. Maybe it’s harder to get dates when you live at home with the wife and kids? I’m not sure, and frankly, you couldn’t pay me enough to ask him.

[All names have been changed – OS]


Who Goes There: Intro

November 18, 2009

Close quarters in the war zone were a given, and that reality could be challenging, aggravating or downright unpleasant. It was also, at times, a magical combination of personalities that made the whole experience gain immeasurable value.

When I first arrived in-country, people at home emailed me to ask what sort of people work in Iraq. Some seemed to assume that I was surrounded by adrenaline-jacked US Marine wanna-bes. Others implied that it must be lonely being the only woman, or the only liberal, or the only liberal arts-educated person within shooting distance (so to speak). 

None of those assumptions were true. The people that I worked and lived with ran the gamut from back country hicks lacking high school diplomas to PhD’s, adrenaline addicted macho yahoos to sweet little old ladies, neo-conservative Republicans to radical leftists.  For the most part, politics and education didn’t much matter, as politics weren’t discussed and education was only as valuable as the individual’s ability to apply pertinent knowledge, utilize some creative problem solving, and hang on to common sense. A quick wit cut across all boundaries.

In this collection I’ll try to provide profiles of some of the more memorable characters that I had the shining fortune and the dark misfortune to work and live with while in Iraq.


Who Goes There: Lt Willy Beal

November 18, 2009

Lt Willy Beal – BCH Resident Engineer

Being the Resident Engineer for the Bestest Children’s Hospital (BCH) makes Willy our poster child for meaningful assignments: his son is a leukemia survivor.

Essentially a glass-is-half-full man, Willy will dwell on a problem only for as long as it takes to identify it as such and brainstorm a solution. If a solution isn’t imminent, the subject will be dropped. He wants to be happy, and he wants the people around him to be happy. A warm and sympathetic man, he’ll hold a friend’s hand for as long as necessary as long as it is necessary – just don’t whine.

Routinely dropped into positions above his skill level, Willy quickly ramps up to take on the challenge and inevitably proves himself worthy in short order. He meets adversaries honestly, with straightforward facts and common sense interpretations, earning him high marks from everyone that matters. Unearned self-importance and power plays are swiftly derailed by his forthright manner.

(What is it with Navy officers? They’re all competent, common sensical, and easy going. The Navy is doing something right that the Army must too often be doing wrong … )

Voted second sexiest eyes on base, Lt Willy Beal is a tall, handsome, barrel-chested man with a charmingly enthusiastic admiration for women. Utterly committed to his wife and children, it’s universally agreed that his affectionate attentions are cozy and comforting, protective and platonic, assuring that his hugs are welcome and highly valued. (Well, appreciated anyway … none of us women would much mind should his moral compass run adrift one evening … !).

Defining actions and characteristics:

  1. If he’s missing, check a woman’s office
  2. Second sexiest eyes on base (brown)
  3. Oakley half jackets (love the shades, babe …)
  4. Great hugs at exactly the right time
  5. Good with the suntan lotion

Why he stays:

Because he has to – tell him he can leave and watch how fast he hustles his ass aboard a C-130. He likes the job and thinks it’s valuable, but he didn’t volunteer to come to Iraq.

[All names have been changed – OS]