Embedded Journal: The Rhythm of the Day
As a media embed, my own schedule is not so different from the one described in the story below. I hang out with the Joes as they go through different aspects of their regime. During the morning work hours, however, you'll usually find me at my “office” over in that part of this endless sandlot that is presently refered to as the motor pool. There, I have power for the laptop and can set up with a board over two jerry cans and a camp chair and get to work. I come back at night, set up the satphone, write a little more and try to transmit. My older generation Iridium is slow, and despite as much wide-open sky as anyone could ask for, frequently loses its connection. I swear at it a lot. The GIs are intensely interested in this technology, because in this camp, it represents virtually the only two-way connection to the outside world and families.
“Can you get Internet on that?”
“Well, yeah, sort of,” I say.
“Yeah, when it is working.”
“Can you talk on it, like call up your family?”
“Yeah, I could.”
They also seen me use my Kuwaiti cellphone, currently the most reliable way to communicate with the home office, and they cast envious glances. They’ve been out here a long time, and since shifting from the more established Camp New York to this assembly area, no phone, no Internet. I’ve spoken to the company captain about setting up some situation where we can blast off one large email to the unit’s FSG … Family Support Group … but he has asked that I don’t engage in any freelance goodwill measures. That’s OK, as it would quickly become my own personal nightmare.
Some are just curious about the technology. The maintenance sergeant known by his buddies as “Little Brown Dude” has “Aztec God” painted on the M88 recovery vehicle he drives. He came around, looked at the small black satphone on its tripod perched on a tank parts box, its antenna pointed at the sky overhead, and asked just what that thing does, anyway.
“Well, Sgt. Castillo, it talks to the sky. The sky talks to my boss and everything’s good,” I told him. I explained to him that my own understanding of these things is essentially on the voodoo level. For all I know, there’s a wax-and-chicken-feather model of the world inside with pins stuck in it.
“I think we can pick up your Aztec gods on this thing, Sgt. Castillo,” I added. “But I don’t know if we’ll know what they are saying.”
“That’s cool,” he said. “Tell ‘em I want to go home.”
“We’ll see what we can do. Hey, don’t tell Easy, or he’ll want to get on the phone,” I said, referring to the platoon’s Nigerian-born mechanic, “but I can pick up some of them African gris-gris gods, too. But the connection isn’t so good.”
Working at night, I watch the red and white lights of mile-long convoys moving on the horizon, and see the bright floodlights at similar camps dotted one to five miles away all around. The mechanics have packed up and gone to bed before I end my day, shivering in the chill of the desert night under a vast array of stars, the half-moon lighting up the sand, the tents and the vehicles all around. I try to be quiet about it as I turn in among the sleeping Joes. The next day, we all start it again.
From the Boston Herald:
By JULES CRITTENDEN
NORTHERN KUWAITI DESERT -- Life in the desert camps has a rhythm. It has to, if this army is to maintain its cohesion and these soldiers are to retain their sanity, discipline and battle-readiness. After a few days here, you settle into it. You have to. And although the uniforms and the weapons may have changed, it is a rhythm any soldier from any century who has spent time living rough and waiting for war might recognize. The following outlines an average day:
0500 hours: The Joes begin to stir in their cots in the big olive drab platoon tents. There is no reveille here. They pull themselves out of their “fart sacks” and throw their feet onto the sandy tarp that is their floor. They pull on dusty DCUs – desert camouflage uniforms – and head out in the dawn’s chill to shave and brush their teeth by the 500 gallon “water buffalo,” a tank on wheels. The hardier souls, if they are two or three days out from their last shower, might head into the “Australian shower,” a plywood shed with jerry cans full of water and buckets equipped with shower heads that dribble the icy water on your back.
0630 hours: Formation. The Joes line up, smoking the day’s first butt and joking while platoon sergeants and the company’s first sergeant confer at the head of the formation until it’s time to call the Joes to attention. With the platoon lieutenants standing a few paces behind each platoon, the
platoon sergeant call out to their squad leaders to report that all are present and accounted for. They order them to stand at ease and then bark out the business of the day. If a motivational harangue or new orders on the uniform of the day – soft caps or Kevlar – are required, they are
delivered now. Then A Company is called to attention to shout out its slogan….”ASSASSINS, ONE SHOT, ONE KILL!”
0700-0900 hours: Chow call in the mess tent one kilometer away across the sand at 4/64 Battalion headquarters. The Joes line up and file through the field kitchen for ready-made “omelet with sausage” or “corned beef hash” from large, steaming foil trays, glopped onto your carboard tray. Maybe some waffles. Coffee, juice and fruit inside the mess tent. It all tastes more or less the same, which is never great, but your body is hungry for the calories and you shovel it in. Back in the tents, the Joes sweep out as much of the sand as they can, straighten their gear, and see to laundry ...
a bucket full of suds swished around by the water buffalo and hung to dry on lines strung between the tents.
0900-1200 hours: The platoons regroup for the training, gear maintenance, and other tasks that keep them ready for battle on a couple of hours notice when they are called. Younger soldiers are walked through refreshers on map-reading and other skills. Some soldiers break down their weapons and
clean them. Others climb up on their tanks for preventative maintenance – lubing, checking and tightening bolts – looking for bigger problems to report to the maintenance chief. The company captain and the executive officer head across the desert in their Humvee for an endless round of
planning sessions at battalion headquarters. The platoons also start work on “graphics” and “overlays,” preparing the battle maps with routes and objectives for the war to come.
At this time the designated “duty platoon” performs the most hated task, but the one that seems to be conducted with the most laughter, “burning dukie.” They haul the sawed off 55-gallon drums out of the plywood three-seater latrine. They drag them 50 feet away to the pit where trash is burned. They pour in the diesel and set it afire. One soldier with gloves on uses a six-foot-long metal fence post to stir the flaming excrement, adding diesel until the fluids are burned off and the rest is reduced to ashes. In the cool morning breeze, the soldiers warm themselves on the billowing flames, taking care to keep out of the heavy black poop smoke.
The smell is mainly that of diesel and it isn’t as horrible as one might think. In fact, it can be pretty good entertainment.
“This here’s nice and warm. Anyone got any hot dogs?”
“Someone ate some corn! I hear it popping!”
Something explodes in the nearby trash fire.
“What the (expletive) was that?” … “Explosive dukie!” … “Propane can” …“Lithium battery” … “Time to get out of here!” The trash-fire tender pokes around with his stick and pulls out an exploded can of chicken.
The dukie-burning detail quiets a little as the time consuming process
“Staring at the (expletive) fire … mesmerizing,” says the platoon
“Like watching color TV,” says another sergeant.
Meanwhile, other members of the duty platoon are doing sentry duty around the camp, and manning the radios, logging the chatter in the Command Post tent. Others will take one of the mammoth M1A1 Abrams tanks out to the berm about a kilometer away to maintain an obseration post.
1200-1300 hours: The platoons break for lunch. MREs – Meals, Ready to Eat – the shelf-stable meals in a pouch designed at the Natick Soldier Systems Center to last five years, fuel soldiers up with about 1,200 calories per meal, and taste good. They accomplish the first two objectives well, but the third, well, they’ve introduced all kinds of entrees like enchiladas, Thai chicken, Cajun chicken and pasta with Alfredo sauce, but after you’ve worked through a few MREs, as the soldiers say, it all starts to taste the same. The Joes finish eating and rack out for half an hour.
1300-1700 hours: the work, duty and training schedules are resumed.
1700-1900: Another stroll across the desert to the mess tent. It’s usually hamburgers or barbecued chicken with rice, and salad. Dinner is the meal that usually most resembles what people in the civilian world would recognize as food.
1900-2200: The soldiers are left to themselves to entertain themselves as soldiers in camp have done since McClellan’s army camped on the Potomac and Caesar’s army camped on the Rhine, awaiting battle with Confederates or the Germanic tribes. They play cards and dominoes. They talk and joke and sing snatches of popular songs. They read books and write letters. All that has really changed over the centuries is that today, you’ll see soldiers sitting quietly with CD headphones on listening to Kid Rock, Eminem, Avril Lavigne or Three Doors Down. Others gather around laptops to watch “Hannibal,” “Bring It On” or “Undercover Brother.” In this rough assembly area camp, there is no formal lights out, but they begin to settle in around 2200, exhausted by the day’s work and the incessant desert sun, the wind and the dust. Sleep comes heavy and fast, and is unbroken until dawn.
Jules Crittenden, 42, has covered crime, politics, science, maritime matters and foreign affairs for the Boston Herald for 10 years, including ethnic conflicts and other issues in Kashmir, Kosovo, Israel, Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh. He has been in Kuwait covering the buildup to war since Feb. 2 and is now embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Crittenden was raised in Indonesia, Australia, East Pakistan and Thailand, and lives south of Boston with his wife and three children. You can read his Boston Herald coverage at http://www2.bostonherald.com/news/international/kuwa03192003.htm.