Saturday, April 21, 2007

Man, I'm Hungry

"At least they told us now and not in June."

Those were my words when I found out about the extension policy that was implemented on April 12. Minutes before, I read about the death of Kurt Vonnegut at an internet terminal at the Frankfurt International Airport. He died on April 11. I'm glad to say I'm new to his writings, because after finishing three of his books, I still have a lot of his work to look forward to. Vonnegut has the reputation of being anti war, anti imperialism and against any absurdities committed in the name of America. I came to the conclusion that the administration waited patiently for Kurt Vonnegut to die before rolling out this Iraq wide extension. They didn't want to be embarassed by what he would have to say.

And I can't imagine what that would be. But here is what he said about me and my friends in his column in the magazine In These Times:

By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of
wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their
morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.

He speaks, of course, of the hawkish writers that suggest speaking out against the administration, Bush and of the Iraq War was unpatriotic, and gasp! Would seriously undermine the morale of the military. Like a congregation of Tipper Gore clones they loudly bombasted, "Oh, would someone please think of the soldiers!" At the same time, those same people in the Senate, as well as Bush, reject a timetable for troop pullout, saying it would put us in serious danger and give the insurgents a plan for attack.

Now let that settle in. A pullout date would put us in serious danger and give the insurgents a plan for attack. What are we in now, relative safety, and the insurgency in its last throes? Last throes? Oh shit, where have I heard that before?

This of course comes back to the extension. Secretary Gates issued at least a three month extension to everyone in Iraq, on top of the twelve months they already have. Their plan was to have units home for a full year before deploying again, but some units were coming back to Iraq and Afghanistan in ten months. It wasn't adequate time they decided. And since the military is stretched, especially during the surge, some units would have to spend more time in Iraq than promised. A problem arose from this. They couldn't pick and choose which units to extend to relieve the pressure, so with an effortless gesture of a pen stroke, 160,000 troops are being held for fifteen months (except us, we're staying for sixteen months! Hooboy!). Secretary Gates also mentioned that every soldier spending more than a year deployed will get an extra $1000 per month, and a guarantee of twelve months home between deployments and you're fucking lucky to get that much.

If I've learned anything thus far, a guarantee from the Army and three dollars will get you a coffee at Starbucks.

Let me give you a little backround if I haven't already. I joined the Army out of half patriotism, half desperation in 2004. I was still angry about September 11 and I totally fucked up school. I barely made it out of there with a diploma, and I knew it was because I had no discipline or direction. I thought the Army would be a magic bullet for all of those problems. The war was going on for a year when I joined, and I thought it was just and right at the time. Flash forward to 2007, and please, let's be grownups now. There were no weapons of mass destruction found, reason one. Reason two, the connection between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, which is largely unfounded. So why did we attack Iraq in response to September 11? It was like getting stung by a bee in your house and responding by going outside and kicking over an anthill.

I promise you all, there's no method to the madness. I put my life on hold for another four months for nothing. Can you imagine? I know soldiers fighting in previous wars had it a lot tougher. Kurt Vonnegut had it tougher in World War II. But at the very least, they had a goal, a promise of a bright new world free of Nazism. Brave men literally fought for freedom, because if they didn't, the world was going to be in the hands of Germany and Japan. That was the light at the end of their tunnel. Do you know what the light at the end of the tunnel is for us?


Yeah, food. When we're on patrols and house clearing missions, what's keeping us going is not the promise of freedom and democracy in Iraq. It's the vision of hamburgers, fries and ice cream. I can live without a market based economy in the Middle East, but I can't live without a toasted ham sandwich. Several times we have raced back to the base to get to the dining hall as it closed. Something to eat is the high point of the day. Imagine the low points.

As Kurt Vonnegut suggested, our morale is shot to pieces. The few tattered remains left were eviscerated when they extended us four months. The most devious trick the media and the government has pulled in the last ten years is suggesting to the public that the soldiers believe in the mission and the war itself. In my unit that is definitely not the case. We just fight for food and friends, and the hope of getting home. I know a few people who still believe in the cause. I would know one more, but he died when I was on leave.

Remember that naive 19 year old kid I described earlier? The one unsure about his future that wound up in the Army? Those kinds of kids are the most succulent prey in the system. Kids that age and a little older are slammed with guilt trips to reenlist to stay in for several more years. In Iraq they are given $15,000 bonuses, tax free. That's a lot to a kid, very irresistable. At the same time, they are browbeaten by their superiors into reenlisting, saying it's for their own good. You'll fail on the outside. Stay where you're loved. What else are you going to do? All common phrases thrown around in the countless reenlistment briefs I've attended. But it's 2007, not 2004, and I'm not falling for it a second time.

Earlier editions of this blog have mentioned the date in which I seperate from the military, November 24, 2007.
That is merely symbolic now. After coming home, you must stay for three months so they determine you're not crazy and all that. Our return home date is October 15. So that means I'll be held against my will again, until January 2008 it seems.

So Lauren, my sweetheart, I won't get to go on summer walks and picnics with you. I hope Pike's Market is nice in the winter. Mom, I won't be there for your birthday. Yours either Dad. Can't forget Andrew's. And Albert's. Won't be making your wedding either, Albert. To the students of my high school, I won't get to thank you in person for the letters and packages you sent until November at least.

Readers, fear not! Despite the caustic undertone of this entry, I am glimmering with hope. The dining hall opens in ten minutes for breakfast, and they make some killer omelettes.

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you
different. -Kurt Vonnegut


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Europe and Back Again

For the past several days I've been standing by in Baghdad, waiting for a flight back to Baqubah to continue that glorious mission there. I'm already harking back to the days of leave, where for fifteen days I was in a foreign place with no direction or clue.

We got off the train at our destination and just simply wandered around for a hotel, with our ever present and ever heavy bags with us. We landed at the Frankfort Airport, and the first thing we did was exchange a few hundred dollars into euros. The next thing was Eurail tickets. But that would be my first roadblock. Immediately my bank saw a suspicious transaction when I used my card to get cash. They suspended my card by the time it took me to find the Eurail desk and buy a ticket. Luckily, I brought $400 in cash and paid for it that way, then called my bank to straighten it out. Success! I was nearly stranded. I thanked the nice bank lady and Steve and I were off to Amsterdam, a few hours away.

We found a cheap hotel, dropped our bags and started exploring. Armed with a free but terrible tourist map, we walked around the old town, wandering along canals that cut through the city. When night came we were vain in our efforts to find the famous Red Light District, but decided the next night would be ours. We awoke early, or at least I did. Our receipt proclaimed a free breakfast included in the price, so I made my way downstairs, daydreaming of eggs, bacon and donuts the size of sewer lids. To my absolute horror, I discovered the ingredients of a European breakfast: a piece of bread, a slide of cheese, jelly, butter, orange juice and coffee or tea (your choice!). Realizing my Grand Slam breakfast will never be realized, I finished the snack and climbed into what was to become the most spacious shower on the continent. Out the door, we walked in the direction of Anne Frank's house. And we found it, along with a huge group of school kids on a field trip. After an hour we made it in, and in a few words, it was bigger than I thought. It was a nice tour though. From Anne Frank's house to the Pancake House, where we discovered a new kind of pancake. Very thin, very cooked, very good. And more tea! Next was the Van Gogh Museum, which featured not only his works but those of his contemporaries. I can't appreciate paintings on the scale of some people, but it was pleasant to walk through. Next to the museum was a large, large park where kids wondered around holding hands, playing soccer and kicking back. We decided to sit down on a rolling green hill. I quickly decided that Amsterdam was the most liberal, relaxed, don't-give-a-shit place I've ever been. It made Seattle look like a 1920s Southern Baptist potluck. It was definitely refreshing. We stayed there a good hour until we decided to head back. We detoured to find the Holland Casino, since me and Steve are gamblers in our own right. We decided it was worth a shot to hustle some Europeans in some blackjack. This was our first of many problems we encountered due a lack of passport. They wouldn't let us in without one. There wasn't a way to get one in Iraq, and we were told our military IDs would be good enough everywhere. But alas, that wasn't the case.

Nighttime fell! We were tipped off on the location of the Red Light District and headed that way. A few blocks from our hotel, it became so obvious: red lights, literally, throwing a crimson glow on several city blocks. Approaching, we saw several prostitutes in the windows like they were designer handbags. Some surprisingly good looking, some vaguely mannish. As you walk by, they'll tap the glass to get your attention. If you ignore some, they will slam it hard in defiance. Looking down the street, you can see several customers walking into the rooms behind the glass, which simply contain a bed, chair and sink. Not very romantic. On the strip, we stopped in a locally famous bar called The Bulldog, where I had my first beer as a twenty one year old. It was a Heineken on tap. We bounced around the district for a little more, heading back to the hotel late. We decided to leave for Paris the next day. Goodbye Holland, you were good to us!

Immediately, Paris was not agreeable. We found out on our way that some trains required reservations to ride on them, on top of the cost we already paid on the ticket. So we were hit with a twenty one euro penalty for not reserving a seat. No matter, onto The City of Lights.

We got off the train in the late afternoon, with a terribly complex map. It took us awhile to get the hang of this place. We started to find hotels on our walk away from the station, but they were all too expensive. Farther still, there were no hotels left. My dad told me that the only thing a Parisian hated more than an American talking to them in English was an American trying to talk to them in French. Quickly, I found that out. Hoping locals would be just as helpful as the Dutch, I asked a lady passing by if she knew of a close hotel. I said "madam, pardon, si vou plait" but she stared straight ahead as if I were a ghost. Or worse, and American tourist! We decided to press on for another half hour. Soon, I found out what it was like to be John Cusack. Out of nowhere it started to pour rain. So far you suck, France! I walked into a police station, pleading with them to point me in the direction of a hotel, any hotel. Around the corner we were led to a place. 95 euro a night? We'll take it! By the way, the euro is stronger than the U.S. dollar. Argh.

We slept off our frustration, and in the morning, saw it was still raining. We went down to breakfast, and my lowered expectations found a not-so-bad meal. We checked back into the room, and they asked us if we had breakfast. Well, of course we did. And shockingly that was extra. Eight euro extra to be exact. Ugh. It continued to rain and rain into the afternoon. We almost decided to blow France off completely and go to Belgium, but some time after three, the rain cleared up. Looks like France got another shot. We walked briskly toward Notre Dame in the light drizzle and decided it was wise to get a jacket. We stopped in a store and I bought a nice black one for a good price. We got to Notre Dame and saw the outside but neglected the tour. On to the Pantheon, which we did tour. Slowly we made our way to the Eiffel Tower but stopped at a skyscraper about a mile from it.

They allowed tourists to go to the top of the building, which offered a very nice panoramic view of the city. It was getting dark, so we walked toward the Eiffel Tower, wondering how different the city would look at night. Of course, there was a huge mob of a line that took an hour or two. Finally, we began to go up. There's really no way to describe it. It's high. And it was dark. I really wanted to find where Hitler stood when he took that famous picture in front of the tower. Around midnight, we began our long walk back to the hotel. We decided two days of Paris was enough. We chanced upon the Lourve, which was really close to the hotel. Oh well, we missed you, Mona Lisa.

Caen was our next stop, a nice city in Normandy. I was a WWII history buff in my past life, and Caen was a famous city that saw huge battles. The mood in Normandy was great compared to Paris. Another rumor come true. We spent a few days there, walking around the Chateau Decal. We enjoyed the city long enough for me to find out how to make it to the Normandy beaches, some miles away. We booked a tour guide to meet us the next day. They'd take us from the Caen Memorial Museum straight there for a five hour tour for seventy euro! A steal really.

Starting in the afternoon, we arrived at the partial gun batteries on the very east side of the coast. Huge artillery pieces were still left, somewhat intact. On the shore lay a few scattered strips of the harbor that was constructed early in the invasion, becoming the busiest port in the world in a matter of days! We moved down the beach to Omaha, the bloodiest of them all. I pocketed a rock left in the sand as a memento. We drove farther still to Point Du Hoc, where the Rangers scaled the cliffs to destroy guns there. It was almost too much for a history nerd like myself. The tour ended there. The nice guide offered to drop us off near our hotel. That was our last night in Caen, and in France. A bittersweet country.

We were at about our halfway point when we decided, shit, we might as well spend the rest of our time in Rome. In our hotel room in Caen, we planned for hours the schedule we'd take for the remainder of our trip. Our best bet was to head to Geneva for a night, then Milano, Italy and spend the night there, going to Rome the next day.

The Swiss were not as friendly as we hoped.

We had to get through customs to stay in Geneva, and we were stopped and questioned. They were unhappy about our lack of passports and told us we couldn't get into Switzerland without one. Sorry, go back to France (a place that started to look friendly by comparison!). We pleaded our case, telling them we were just passign through to Italy, and that we were on vacation from Iraq. Their hearts grew ten sizes that day, and they let us in. Here is what I learned about their country: they use Swiss Francs, not euros! Silly Swiss! And they sell beer at McDonalds! We left the next morning, and on the way I stopped by a post office to mail my first round of postcards.
As a thank you, they gave me a piece of complimentary Swiss cheese, which happens to be my favorite kind. Way to go, Switzerland. You're now better than France. But goodbye, onto Italy!

Like Paris, Milano was not a good city to start the longest part of our stay, Italy. It was a lot hotter there, and even harder than Paris at hotel locating. When we found one at a decent price, they politely asked for passports. We didn't have any, we explained. Oh no, that is not good enough, said the mean lady. I wanted to tell her my ID was good enough to get into her country, but she spoke little English. We decided it was a hostile city and had an idea: get an overnight train to Rome. It'd cost us, though. About as much as a decent hotel. But oh, better than staying in Mean Milano. It was four in the afternoon, and the overnight train left at 11pm. Oh, what to do? We went to the train station and found a bookstore with a slim English book section. If you think pickins are slim at an American airport, try an Italian train station. I bought a mystery thriller about the death of Edgar Allen Poe that kept me occupied until our train left. Eight hours and we'd be in Rome.

We learned our lesson and checked ahead for places to stay while in Milano, and found some places we couldn't before: hostels. We went to one upon arriving in Rome but it was full. But they pointed us in the direction of a laundromat that rented out dorm rooms. Enchanting. We got there and booked for five nights in a coed dorm. Free Indian food dinner every night, the ticket proclaimed! We passed up the kebab and tried authentic Italian pasta. Weirdly, it was difficult to find a real, sit down restaurant in Europe. It's all about tiny, hip cafes. Luckily we found a nice place with cheap prices. Quickly, our dorm filled up. There were three rooms with five or six beds apiece and they were nearly all taken. We had some Canadians, some locals, Dutch girls, a trio from Ecuador and an Irishman. We were joined by an American girl living in Spain and her German friend she met in Barcelona. They were kind enough to invite us on a trip to Vatican City the next day.

We woke up early to beat the crowd, taking a bus cross-city. We walked around St. Peter's Square and into the church, which housed plenty of art and statues of all the past popes. After a quick walkthrough, we decided to swing around to the Sistine Chapel. It was eight in the morning when I saw the biggest line of my life, one that spanned four blocks. It was so big we couldn't see the end because it took several turns around corners. Steve tried to find the beginning of it but came back without seeing it. I decided on the brave notion of seeing the start, so I timed myself to see how long it took. Nine minutes and thirty-six seconds later, I returned. The line was longer than we thought. It was four hours until we made it in. The chapel is actually at the end of the tour, with countless paintings, murals and statues before it. When we finally got to the famous room Michaelangelo painted, there is forced silence and rules against picture taking. Scoff! In the crowd, I found the scene of God reaching out to Adam, knelt down to where the guards couldn't see, and took a picture. I'm sure it was a common practice. I took a few more and shuffled out with Steve (we had lost our two new friends near the entrance, but found them outside). They were meeting some friends outside Vatican City, so we excused ourselves and headed back to the hostel and rested after a long day.

The next day started with the Pantheon, the original building the one in Paris was modeled after. It is said the builders of the Paris Pantheon never saw the real deal, they just had sketches. Impressive I thought. It was Easter, so a lot of things were closed. So we merely passed by a lot of momuments and made it back early. Even though it was called rest and relaxation, we hardly rested or relaxed on our whole trip. We rarely took a bus or subway, walked for miles, and spent all day out. So we took a day to chill out and sleep in. Our last day, we were to see the most famous of Roman attractions, the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Surely the highlight of any slightseeing for the whole trip. The Forum is where I snapped my last picture, the 378th of the trip. Back to the hostel, for a rest before our dreaded return to Frankfurt. Shortly after arriving, two Canadian girls showed up and proved to be the most friendly yet. They had planned to go out on a pub crawl that night. As we found out, a pub crawl is where you go to a bar as a group, drink a lot, then walk to another bar. Repeat as necessary. I've never been a big drinker but I decided to give it a shot. We started at nine at night and began a hazy walk back at three in the morning, staggering along as the most drunk I've ever been. It's probably understood that navigating at night with a map while drunk is difficult to do, but we managed to get back in one piece. Our train left at seven, so we had a few hours to rest. Beer soaked, we ventured to the train station with Frankfurt as our final destination.

It was a trip of highs and a trip of lows. A trip of firsts and lasts.

  • The friendy, carefree, English speaking Dutch
  • The Normandy coast
  • European women
  • Nearly hastle free train travel
  • Hostels
  • The entire city of Rome

Not Sweet:
  • Asshole Parisians
  • European women
  • European breakfasts
  • Pay toliets (everywhere)
  • Hidden costs of ketchup and breakfasts
  • Small showers
  • Homeless people (everywhere)

I regret spending too little time in Holland, too much time in France, and no time in Germany. France was beautiful when the people weren't. Italy was my favorite, but not at first. And fuck, I spent a lot of money.

At the Frankfurt airport, I found out everyone in Iraq was getting extended at least three months. I was glad the announcement came at the end of my trip and not the beginning. But I did feel a little regret. I felt that home could have been a better choice over Europe. I haven't been home, in Texas, since mid April of 2006. A year. With the extention, I won't see it for another six months at least. I think in the future, though, I will appreciate the fact I traveled Europe when I had the chance.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A break

It's been a little over a week since I left the daily violence of Iraq. When deployed, you're allotted fifteen days in twelve months for rest and recooperation. I just happened to be one of the very last to leave, at the tail end of the deployment. I didn't go home like nearly everyone else since I figured it'd be too hard to leave my family and friends behind again to come right back to Iraq. Before we left in June 2006, I was ignorant of the emotions you carry around that place. Almost a year later, I know all too well.

So I opted to take a cross-continent trip all over Europe with my good friend Steve. With the exception of Kuwait and Iraq, I had never visited a foreign country, though I always ached to escape the confines of American borders. Thus far, I have traveled through The Netherlands, Belgium and France. I can't adequately describe what it feels like to stand on the beaches of Normandy, to see where many men died in a battle that mattered while the gears of war scarcely tremble in the region I was in just under a week ago.

I'm writing this from an internet cafe in Geneva, Switzerland. I don't plan on staying here past tonight, though. This is a major junction to Italy, where I had wanted to spend the most time on my trip. Tomorrow we're boarding a train to Milano, then the next day we're pressing on to Rome for four days. After that, I go back to Iraq, to join other nameless cogs, as the war machine keeps on turning.