Friday, June 25, 2010

Of comfort in simple places

A cold frost is settling on the newly fallen Autumn leaves, on a dark night in late November. I can see my breath on the air, but I am warm, under a blanket, nestled near a campfire. I can hear a flock of geese honking through the air, and just barely pick up their forms against the inky purple of the night sky. It is cloudless, and the night is clear. I make out Orion’s belt, and stoke the flames of the fire with the toe of my badly worn boots.

My companions lay snoring on out tent, out of the wind on the top of a mountain ridge line. Restless, I’d wandered out to the edge of the cliff to listen to the night and enjoy the feeling of chilly open air rather than the stuffy confines of the tent. I light a honey cigar and think of my troubles, and wonder for my future. An owl calls out and moments later is answered by another. Unidentified night critters can be heard rustling through the leaves, but away from the fire. They are undaunted by my presence in their world, and pulled by some unseen force to gather what food remains to store up fat for the winter. I wonder briefly if our food cache was hung right, and if some raccoon might manage to make mischief of it later on.

I contemplate all the usual things a man should think about in the woods. I think of cold beer, which I was then too young to enjoy. I think of women, and my many failed attempts to woo them. I am surrounded by my own little patch of wilderness, and confront my insignificance to the universe. So many small things alter our lives in ways that we never think about. The path you take on the street may change who you meet. A small chance meeting adds a new friendship to your life that may never have happened if you were just five minutes late. The ambulance call that you don’t take could be the difference between life, and death.

I wonder if these things, and the wilderness around me are all biological randomness, if these events are just chance encounters, or perhaps just evidence of the miraculous, and God’s wonder in everything. I wonder if God is truly concerned with the everyday lives of man, or if he has a greater, more Godly purpose in the universe. I wonder, if I feel saddened by the terrible things that man does to one another, what sadness might mean to God, and how he might handle that, being the only one.

These puzzles bounced around in my head, unsolved, and leaving me confused and utterly awake. The noise in my head grew, in stark contrast to the relative silence of my surroundings. Nothing but the occasional pop of a branch in my now neglected fire broke the silence for a few moments. And then the music started.
A mournful cry came from the hill beneath me, a high pitched howl, a yelp, something close to a bark. Another coyote answered, and another. For a few minutes the hills all around me were alive with song, bouncing from peak to peak, and across the valley below. The coyote’s call seemed to be timed just so. There were indeed miracles in the world, and God listens, even when you don’t think you’re speaking with him.


It’s not quite 4am as I dress in the dark. I pull my camouflage on over my boxers, lace up my boots, and belt on my pistol. My room-mate lies in bed still sleeping, and my groggy, heavy eyelids can barely see even in the beam of my flashlight. I grab my ID card, take my vitamins, and pocket a bottle of water, then head out the door to go to work.

It’s already about 90 degrees, even at this early hour, but even that temperature feels pleasantly cool, if not quite chilly against my skin. In comparison to the 130 degree heat that I will see later on in this day, I am at ease with the climate.

I walk my way past the Dining Facility, my eyelids begging for coffee, but knowing that the DFAC won’t be open for another two hours. I head up Sharrarah Ur road, stepping light and fast, sipping water as I go. I pass a few vehicles along the way, and one or two soldiers on bicycles headed to work like me, but the base looks deserted, mournful, and lonely in the shadows of the desert night.

The wind is calm, and no dust has yet been stirred up, so I breathe deep and easy, taking the turn onto 6th Avenue, towards the swamp in the desolate far corner of the base. I walk past quiet motor pools full of war vehicles. I pass bunkers, left over from the last war in this place, when I was a child. They are torn apart, and in great disrepair. Gaping wounds have been left in the walls and roofs, where JDAM’s tore through them in bombing runs. I wonder if they were left as a reminder to the enemy.

As I walk, I wonder about the choices that have led me to be here. I think about the sense of duty I was raised with, the compassion that I was born with, and that my family cultivated as I grew up. I reflect on the strong feelings toward justice and freedom in my heart. I wonder if it will make a difference to the people here, who seem so indifferent and resigned to their standard of living.

I stop, and sit on the ground in front of the swampy lake. There are surprisingly few insects out to bother me, just crickets chirping. I look out across the water. It barely moves, with no wind to push it, but moonlight shining down on the ripples makes it look shimmering and alive. Tall water plants reminiscent of cattails rustle gently, the only noise that’s outside of my head.

I once again contemplate the random events that shape our lives-if I had stayed in college, I would be a different man right now. I would probably never have been a soldier. I would never have had the chance to experience the joys and sorrows of my job back home. I would not know the same people, or have the same views on the world.

I wonder if I will experience combat here, and wonder if I’ll perform the way that I hope. I try not to think about it, but I can’t help but ask how well I’ll take it if I lose a friend under my care. I ask myself if the mission can succeed here, with the political climate in Baghdad, and at home. I try not to think of the possibilities, and rise from my place at the edge of the lake to get to work.

From across the desert, and outside the wire, comes the singing. A high pitched howl, in quick, barking staccato. It carries from beyond my field of view, and the sound is joined with other howls in a moment, reaching me in a beautiful, if eerie chorus. I’m reminded by the jackals of a another discontented night, several years, and thousands of miles ago. They tell me that all is as it should be, come what may, and that there’s beauty everywhere, even in a war-torn corner of a desolate desert landscape.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Critters and the War on Mice

I've been in Iraq nearly two months now, long enough to have some critter encounters that I think I should share. Iraq certainly has plenty of wildlife to be found if you look hard enough. I'm still trying to get my hands on a field guide to middle eastern birds, so if anybody knows where I can get one, let me know.

Camel Spiders

Camel spiders are a relative of the Arachnid family, and they belong to the order of Solifugds. And no, I can't pronounce that. There are a number of rumors about their size, speed, and habits that circulate around here.

The rumor is that they got their names by their nasty habit of burrowing into a camels viscera in order to lay eggs, which later hatch, and devour the camel. Research, of course, shows this to be false, but it still makes for a formidable reputation.

I was under the impression that they could get to be very large, upwards of frisbee sized, but most of the ones that I've encountered have been no larger than a tarantula spider. They are, however, extremely quick, and very aggressive, especially when cornered. They also do, in fact, jump quite high. I've witnessed it, despite what the Wikipedia article will tell you.

My first encounter with a camel spider was on a job site. A couple of guys chased it down to get a better look at it. They poured cold water on the creature, which causes them to freeze up-most likely because it can no longer breathe. We got a good, close look at four fang-like things at it's mouth, and talked at length about the extraordinary things that we'd heard they could do. Then one of the guys released it from the empty bottle and we moved on.

I sat down later and realized that the camel spider was still in the same spot we let it go at, unmoving, and I assumed that we'd killed it. It seemed like a safe conclusion at the time, so I poked it with a short twig, thinking that if it were dead I could examine it a bit more, for curiousity's sake. This was a mistake. I very nearly had a chunk taken out of my finger. The spider jumped up that stick faster than I could blink, but I dropped it in time. He jumped up the wall of the bunker and holed up somewhere, while I sat a little shaken. I later found out, that although the bite can be painful and prone to infection, it is not actually venomous. Small comfort.

I've also got a mouse problem. It started in the old platoon room. I saw the little guy, about half the size of the field mice back home. He was darting around the edges of the wall, around where I kept my spare medical gear. I was going to set out traps, because I saw the droppings on the floor, and realized he was making quite a mess, but we were switching rooms the next day. Let the new guys deal with it.

Since the re-organization of the company, myself and Sgt. McCarty have taken on the task of combining our respective medical equipment in an unoccupied trailer in the camp, and for the past few days have been doing inventory on what we have, and prepping for upcoming missions.

While going through the foot locker from the old room, I noticed that many of my bandages were chewed, had yellow stains, or mouse pellets on them. These were, of course, discarded. I was very surprised to find my mouse still inside the foot locker though, and very much alive. I emptied most of the stuff out, then tipped the foot locker over, and he ran free. I didn't think I needed to kill him at the time.

When I returned from lunch though, he'd returned to the new room. I caught a glimpse of him darting behind the vehicle first aid kits. I wasn't able to dislodge him without making a horrible mess, but in a few minutes I began to hear chewing again. So no more Mr. Nice Medic.

The house back home is over 100 years old, so I'm no stranger to war with mice. Ive probably been at war with mice for about 13 years longer than this one has been alive. I bought some traps, and they are set. If the viper that lurks underneath the shed doesn't get him, I will.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Notes on Combat Medicine and Handguns

I haven't seen any combat here, but at this point I've run through enough simulated missions to have a bit more insight into what works for me, and what doesn't as far as my armament is concerned.

For the entire time that I've been reading about, and using firearms, I've been told that a handgun is nothing more than a stopgap until you can get to a "real weapon". I'd like to offer a dissenting opinion on that. As a medic, I'm carrying an M4 Carbine and an M9 handgun. My combat load, including body armor, aid supplies, ammo, and sundries, weighs about 70 pounds, give or take. I weigh just under 170 lately.

We're patrolling in heavily armored vehicles with very little room to work with inside. In the event of a hit, it's my job to get to the casualties and treat them, and then get them to a vehicle in which we can evacuate them to higher medical care-by ground, or to an LZ for the chopper.

So far, once I sling my M4, it hasn't come off my back. It tends to get in my way, even with the stock fully collapsed. The barrel catches on seats and straps, on my armor, or doors. It's not quickly accessible. Were I to keep it up front, it would bang my patients in the head, and get in the way of my hands applying bandages or tourniquets. I full realize it's utility if we were taking fire from longer range and I needed to lay down suppressive fire, but with the current ROE it's not likely.

My 9mm is kept in a Serpa holster on the left side of my chest, strapped to my armor. It gives me minor pause about muzzle discipline, as the angle can tend to flag people to my left side depending on where they are at, but with movement, I dont think that there is any completely safe place to put a handgun where it won't flag someone, at some point. That's where safety latches and trigger discipline come into play.

What this position does do, however, is keep the handgun readily accessible, no matter what position I happen to be in, excepting completely prone. In many cases when we get hit, civilians swarm the area-begging for food and water, offering to help, throwing rocks, trying to loot our downed vehicles, and just generally causing enough mischief to raise the pucker factor a bit. They also don't have a good concept of personal space or standoff distance, and sometimes the only thing that gets them to back off is an aggressive demeanor and the muzzle of a weapon. This makes the 9mm perfect. I can be treating a casualty, and if somebody breaks through security, have a weapon on them immediately and still be able to work with one hand. I'm a fair pistol shot, Ive qualified expert each time.

All of these things combine to make the M9 my go-to weapon, and really, my primary weapon. It's not ideal in terms of range or stopping power, but for my situation, its really the best that I could hope for.