crittenden

Jules Crittenden is a Boston Herald reporter, currently embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.


Embedded Journal: A Minor Case, A Major Disease

Jules Crittenden, 43, is a Boston Herald reporter who was embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division last March and April in Iraq and was assigned to Kuwait prior to the war. Crittenden has also reported on ethnic conflict and other issues in India, Pakistan, Kosovo, Israel, the Palestinian areas, Armenia, and Nagorno Karabagh.


It’s World Tuberculosis Day. My own special day this year.


On the advice of my children’s pediatrician, I had a TB test last week.


When he learned that I had spent part of last year in Iraq as an embedded reporter, the pediatrician told my wife he assumed the military had tested us all for TB upon our departure. I laughed when my wife told me that.


“They more or less kicked us out the back door of a C-130 out in the desert, pointed into the darkness, and said, ‘Kuwait City’s that way,’” I told her.


So I let a nurse jab my arm to satisfy my wife’s concerns. Within a day, a red bump the size of a dime appeared on my forearm, the redness around it the size of a quarter. My own doctor, who used to work in a TB clinic in India, opined that was an indicator of recent exposure.


I considered the possibilities. That kid in a Kashmiri refugee camp whose full-face cough I walked into five years ago. I remember thinking no good would come of that. The frightened Iraqi soldiers I coaxed out of their dirt bunker in Baghdad with my broken Arabic, when they held back and the GIs were starting to get tense and irritable about the situation. The Bedouins who shared their tea, sweet goat butter, dates, and conversation in a tent out in the Kuwaiti desert. Any of the Kosovar, Arab, or Armenian crowds I have jostled with in the last few years. God knows.

Tuberculosis is easily transmitted through the air. The docs say they virtually never see it in suburban America and based on the strength of my reaction, my doctor favors my recent Middle East sojourn.


Even here where it is rarely seen, the name tuberculosis holds some residual historic dread. Both parents of my father’s adopted brother in Australia died coughing, wasting deaths of it before World War II. It killed one in seven Americans a little over a century ago, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

In the rest of the world, tuberculosis is one of the leading killers among infectious diseases. There, it takes 2 million lives a year.I had no symptoms of an active infection last week, but I had a couple of tense days anyway until my chest X-ray came back clean. No lesions, no scar tissue. My TB is latent, non-contagious, the doc says. No quarantine, no need for panic in my office or my children’s school. No big deal. All I have to do is take antibiotic horse pills for the next six months to kill it where it is lurking in my lymph nodes.


I am a middle-class American. Only about 700 people die of TB each year in this country – most of them homeless or drug users, from immigrant communities or compromised by other conditions like AIDS. This is not Russia – where drug-resistant strains are emerging – or China, the Middle East, Africa, or Latin America, where it is rampant. In the rest of the world, tuberculosis is one of the leading killers among infectious diseases. There, it takes two million lives a year.


So it serves as another lesson, among many, of how privileged we are. My biggest concern is getting the word out to fellow reporters, professionals, and academics now traveling back and forth to the region in greater numbers, thanks to our ongoing wars and occupation of highly infected areas. You need to be tested.

Most of the colleagues I’ve spoken to were unaware of the risk. One freelance pal joked that if he’s got it, it’s a particularly exotic strain — only the finest Taliban TB from Afghanistan’s Sherbergan prison. I think that might trump my Iraqi POW TB.


“Don’t flatter yourself. Two-thirds of the Third World has got it,” said a Special Forces pal when I told him about my situation. He tested positive four years ago – Bosnia, he figures – and took his pills. The GIs are tested regularly, and hopefully those who get it will stick to the strict antibiotic regimen and not start cultivating a drug-resistant variety here.


For me, this unexpected development has become almost laughable, surfacing amid a rush of Iraq anniversaries: The death dates of men I knew are coming soon, along with those of some strangers I remember. A treatable disease, even with the dread name tuberculosis, is no more than a nuisance for me.


God knows what the future holds for the unknown person who infected me, someone who may not have access to the life-saving health care I take for granted, who is probably infecting others. Someone who may join the ranks of those two million who will die wretched deaths this year, or next year, or the year after that, due to the unmet challenge of containing this disease.


A version of this column appeared in today’s Boston Herald. Read more

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Embedded Journal: Leaving Iraq

Crittenden left Baghdad Monday for Kuwait City and the ride home. Just before leaving Iraq, he filed this report.


A couple of weeks back, when we had returned to the safety of the Najaf desert after the raid on the Euphrates bridgehead, my wife told me over the satphone the people back home were wondering if I’d ever be the same again, what I’d be like when I got back home.

I had already sent back reports of the tank company’s first combat, within artillery range of the ruins of Babylon; of angry, weeping women and frightened children on the road by their burning farmhouse; Iraqi prisoners with trembling hands and the young soldier in the ditch staring at nothing,
a neat hole just below his temple. I had written of the exhausting two-day-long rapid road march that brought us into Iraq; of our camp life in the desert, the filth, the boredom and the waiting.

Since then, I have sent back dispatches about heavier contact; the tragic deaths of civilians who panicked and died when they failed to heed the tankers’ warning fire; the wounded Iraqi who kissed the American medic who patched him up. I’ve written about the RPG-peppered ride into Baghdad
viewed through an open crew hatch of an M113; the sight of hardcore Iraqi Special Republican Guard soldiers being chewed up by heavy machine gun fire around us, and the smell day after day of their slumped and twisted bodies rotting amid the palaces they defended.

There was the clanking ride through Saddam’s rose gardens; the gleeful looting by Baghdadis as their city descended into anarchy and the souvenir-scrounging by soldiers; the cheering of Iraqis who showed every sign that they welcomed this violent change and the disgust of others appalled by it. There was the obscenity of Saddam’s vanity and greed, evident everywhere in a place where money bubbles out of the ground in the form of oil, but where peasants lacked glass windows in their mud-brick huts while their illustrious leader honored himself with heroic statues of himself and crammed his lavish palaces full of expensive liquor and gold-plated guns.

The combat was rarely more than moderate for us. It offered us the thrill of close brushes with death, but it was the Iraqis who did all the dying when A Company, “The Assassins,” rolled up in their tanks flying the Jolly Roger flag. On those recent mornings when it looked like it might all be over, a mild funk would settle in at the prospect that there might be no more action, no reason to stay in this heat amid these swarms of flies and this destruction, eating monotonous meals from foil pouches and accumulating layers of grime upon grime, far from my wife and children. But chaos would prevail, and by the afternoon, we would find ourselves amid some turmoil.

I found out several years ago that action is an attractive flame, though sometimes approached with some trepidation and respect until you are committed, then treated with surprising disregard, as soldiers and reporters alike walked too carelessly through intersections plagued by AK and RPG fire, only ducking when it looked too close, with faith in our body armor and the thought that
The world is very large, and bullets, very small.” On those dull mornings, any prospect of action or forward movement held the promise of offering some meaning to this life in the field.

Peace is the ironic goal of war. The old saying is that soldiers want peace more than anyone else, but soldiers are war professionals who are also eager to practice their craft, until they tire of slaughter and the loss of comrades. In this conflict, I suspect most on the American side did not reach that point. Many told me they wanted more action, but barring that, they wanted to go home. Others were grateful it had been what it was and no more. This may have been America’s hottest war since Vietnam, but Baghdad was not Hue, Mogadishu, Iwo Jima or Shiloh.

As for us, the reporters, action is why we came.As for us, the reporters, action is why we came. No news is no news. There are some earnest souls here with a sense of indignation, but a lot of those I’ve met are what my network affiliate pal called the “war tourists.” Ours is a business that takes us where intense things are happening, and calls on us to try to convey that intensity. The execution of that task is a drug that can become a meaning unto itself. Here, in other foreign assignments and back in the States, I have been privileged to enter the intimate places of people’s lives, when they are stripped bare by adversity. Most of what we write ends up in the recycling bin, to be pulped for another news cycle, but I’ll be content to exit life knowing that I was able to see something of what this world can be like and share a little of it with
others.

I finally had my cold-water shower this morning in one of Saddam’s guesthouses. Three weeks of dirt I had been carrying since my last frigid dousing in the Kuwaiti desert is gone. I’ve been walking around these palace grounds all morning with a silly grin on my face. My cleanliness was a little treasure, like getting an MRE with a fruit packet in it.    

“Look at Critter. Critter’s clean,” said LBD, “Little Brown Dude,” aka Sgt. Manuel Castillo, sitting with a group of mechanics and tankers.

“I’ve stripped off my protective layer of dirt,” I said, unable to wipe the grin off my face. I’m still here, will still heft myself up on top of the 113 to sleep under the stars and swat at mosquitoes tonight, still eating from foil pouches without appetite. The bodies have mostly been picked up, though that blackened half a human is still lying up a side street and you get a whiff from the hedges now and then. The hardships and the hazards of the past weeks are fast becoming flashes of memory.

The GIs are trading rumors. The 101st is coming to relieve them. The 4th Infantry Division is on its way. One soldier heard they’ll be out of here in two weeks, on buses back to Doha, the big base in Kuwait. Another says its three weeks. Another says, forget it, we’ve got two more months here. They talk about what they want to do back home. Coleman, the Georgia country boy who leapt over the irrigation ditch and filled the Iraqi holdouts in it with lead, is looking forward to hunting season. He talks about “The Legend,” the wily old stag in his county that no one ever manages to bag. Smitty is out of the Army in July and intends to lounge around on unemployment for six months before he launches into a career as an x-ray technician. Pasto, the Psyops guy who likes talking with the locals, has a wanderer’s heart and wants to go to Indonesia. He talks about retiring in Southeast Asia or maybe Kosovo, though he’s only 21 and also loves action. Castillo has been inspired by Saddam’s palaces and has big plans for the house he wants to build on his 12 acres on the San Felipe Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico. I suggested he plant four massive bronze busts on top of it of Sgt. Jake, the maintenance chief and Castillo’s personal Saddam, with his wild tuft of hair and a screwed-up angry look on his face because Stubby misplaced a socket wrench or Fitz took that favorite MRE Jake was saving for himself. Jake, he wants a beer on his back deck. Those with wives and women back home want to be with them. The fathers want to be with their kids.

The hazards are not gone here. There is no ceasefire, and yesterday two attempts by suspected Syrian mujahideen to attack military roadblocks with suicide bombs failed. Sporadic shooting sounds around the city. We listen to try to detect what kind of weapon is being fired, whether it’s the cook-off of a weapons cache being burned, exuberant Arabs firing into the air, or tankers warning off a fast-approaching vehicle or engaging a holdout.

I have just been here doing a job, a little different this time, but in this business, everything is about tomorrow.But it is beginning to look like A Company is almost out of the action, with others due to step in. My job here recording the lives of these soldiers at war is nearly done, and it will be time to say goodbye. There is the question of whether I can hop a ride with whoever gets sent to finish the regime in Tikrit. There is the question of going there independently. God bless those reporters who will, but that is expected to be very hostile territory where the chances of being killed will be high. Receiving fire is one thing, but depending on the good will of bandits and mujahideen, at the risk of ending up like one of those crumpled bodies by the side of the road is unappealing. Several independent reporters I’ve spoken to say they won’t do it. I’m sure others will.

The Joes know I might be gone soon. They are envious but don’t begrudge me this privilege. We are edging into disengagement. Castillo and Jake and Baxter tell me I’m welcome in their homes anytime. Pasto and Kauffeld say they think they may pass through Boston sometime.

I received my best war souvenir yesterday, down at the “Big Head” palace where the command tracks are parked between the fountain and the pillars, under the noses of Saddam’s four oversized bronze tributes to himself.

“You gotta love this. This is like Patton in that German palace at the end of World War II,” said Lt. Col. Philip deCamp, commander of the 4/64 Armor battalion, with a big toothy grin. He was sitting in one of Saddam’s chairs, with one of Saddam’s gold-plated AK 47s in front of him on one of Saddam’s big conference tables strewn with American military maps and other articles of a warfighting battalion’s business.

DeCamp handed me one of the battalion’s battle coins, with the “Tuskers” elephant head emblem on it and the motto “We Pierce.”

“You earned it,” deCamp said.

I’ll walk away with other souvenirs.  The rare privilege of becoming close to a good group of soldiers and riding with them into battle. The names and faces of all those soldiers and everything we shared in a little more than a month. The experience of riding with a conquering army into the capital of my nation’s enemy, into that enemy’s own yard. The memory of this strange tour of Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization. Too bad civilization grew up and left home. We missed all the old ruins but saw a lot of new ones.

We’ll see if these experiences have changed me. For now they have just made me tired. I committed myself to this life 18 years ago and in truth it began years before that thanks to the accident of birth that placed me in a wandering family. I’ve learned a couple of things about myself, that I can accept the hard truth that sometimes others must die so that I can live; that I can continue to work and function under more trying conditions than I might have thought. I’m still mulling some of these things. Other lessons may emerge.

For now, I want to go home, kiss my wife and kids. I want to play catch with Ian out in the backyard, curl up with little Devon and a children’s book, take Alex on a special outing with Dad, and take Buddy, our yellow Lab, down to Coast Guard Hill with the kids for a run. I want to spend one of those long evenings talking with my wife when the kids are asleep. I want a big frosty mug with a black-and-tan of Bass Ale and Guinness, with a steak on the grill, on the deck behind our little 1950s ranch in the woods near Cape Cod Bay, surveying all I own, in that place that hasn’t seen war for two centuries. I’ll fall back into the routine of covering whatever local news comes across the city desk at the Boston Herald. In a few months, I might get restless, thinking about the dusty, goat-eating regions of the world. My wife is already telling me I can’t leave them like this again.

Those who are changed are the families, American and Iraqi, who will never see their sons, daughters, mothers and fathers again, and may not ever know what happened to them. Those who will be changed are those who saw much more intense combat than I did, who saw friends die, who killed at close range and are troubled by it, who narrowly avoided being killed themselves. I have just been here doing a job, a little different this time, but in this business, everything is about tomorrow.

Jules Crittenden 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. Read more

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Embedded Journal: ‘I Went Over to the Dark Side’

(Editor’s note: This column catches us up on Jules Crittenden’s last several days, after he was re-united with his laptop computer and again able to file these reports for Poynter.org.)

Tomorrow, I may get to bathe for the first time in over three weeks, not counting several wipe downs. It would be nice, but doesn’t matter much at this point. You’d be surprised how you get used to it, and when I was finally reunited with my gear yesterday, I was able to throw away my week-old underwear and socks, and change my grease-, dirt-, and salt-encrusted pants.

Yesterday was the day I really wanted that bath. Someone told me they had running water in one of Saddam’s palace guesthouses where the Forward Aid Station is. The track I was with stopped nearby for an hour, and the sergeant told me to go for it. I pulled my kit together. A medic showed me the way to an ornate bathroom with fine porcelain fixtures and left me alone. I stripped out of my filthy clothes, got out my dirty bar of soap, climbed in the tub, and turned the faucet.

Nothing. Shower stall. Nothing. Sink. Nothing.

I felt broken. I could have wept. But if you learn anything from living with soldiers in wartime, it’s that you just make the best of what you have and keep going. I grabbed the package of baby wipes someone had left by the clogged toilet and wiped myself down. I threw on the somewhat cleaner underwear, socks, and pants from my pack. On the way out, the medics remarked on how quick my shower was. I told them it wasn’t running, and they said try the one in front. I said maybe next time, I was done for now. I walked back to where the track was parked in the maintenance area and collapsed on Saddam’s front lawn across the tire of a big deuce-and-a-half truck. I was too god-damned tired to do anything else. We had been in Baghdad four days and things were pretty quiet, but this life is exhausting anyway. I was thinking, i’ts getting close to time to go home.

“The Bradley didn’t want to go. I remembered what a photog friend with combat experience once told me. ‘These things happen for a reason.’ There was no room on the tanks for passengers.” We had begun preparing for the ride into Baghdad on Sunday night at an assembly area about 10 kilometers south of the city. A Psyops (Psychological Operations) guy was joining us in the fire-support Bradley, and we had to make room for his electronic gear. We stripped out all the unnecessary gear. Ready for the worst, we kept reminding each other that in Mogadishu, it was water and ammo. Out came more personal gear, in went more ammo and water. Then Pvt. Robert Baxter started up the track to move up onto the road, where we’d spend the night. He shifted into gear to move forward. Nothing happened. The mechanics pored over the transmission, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

The Bradley didn’t want to go. I remembered what a photog friend with combat experience once told me. “These things happen for a reason.” There was no room on the tanks for passengers.

Later, the fire-support lieutenant informed me that he and the Psyops guy had been assigned to ride in on a lightly armored M113 –- originally not intended to make the trip because it is vulnerable to RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). I mistakenly assumed that this meant there was no room for me, because he had not said otherwise and space on the tracks is always at a premium. These things happen for a reason.

At 4 a.m. I woke to the sound of the tanks firing up. I was immediately depressed. “F— it,” I thought. “I’m going.” I raced up to the road, found the CO’s tank, and asked where I could ride.

“You’re in the 113,” he said. I ran back, grabbed my sat phone, my Kevlar, and my body armor. The colonel had told me we would hold the palaces for five hours and pull out, just to make the point. Maybe we’d stay overnight. I didn’t want to jam the crowded M113 with my own electronics gear, so the inverters and the chargers and the laptop stayed back. I wouldn’t see those things or my buddies, Baxter, Smitty, and Sgt. Will, for four days, and only the good graces of the Associated Press, with a similar sat phone and all their charging equipment, kept me in business when Chris Tomlinson, John Moore, and I found ourselves darting around the same RPG-bothered intersection on Wednesday.

Lesson one. Never leave your webgear, and never leave your electronics. Bumming tootpaste to brush with your finger and bumming charges gets old real quick.

The thing about riding into an expected hell of fire is, it’s only bad before it starts. Once you’re rolling, you’re rolling and you stop thinking about it. In the M113, we had the big crew hatch open in the back, and I could enjoy the ride, standing up with the lieutenant and the Psyops guy, both watchful with their M-4 rifles, behind the track commander with his .50 caliber machinegun. Sgt. Dan Howison, the track commander, pointed out where his M-16 was hanging in case I decided I needed it.

The shooting started ahead of us. The 1/64 battalion was leading the column until they split off to the west. In the 4.64’s column, there were just five tanks ahead of us, taking the brunt of the Iraqi fire and laying down heavy suppressive fire. In an industrial area in the outskirts, the first RPGs begun arcing over our track, and we heard the clatter of AK-47s.

“It was here I went over to the dark side. I spotted the silhouettes of several Iraqi soldiers looking at us from the shadows 20 feet to our left. I shouted, ‘There’s three of the f—— right there.’”  Ahead of us, we heard the boom of the tanks’ main guns and the heavy thudding noise of the 50s. Sgt. Dan Howison on our 50 began lighting up roadside bunkers and vehicles the tanks had bypassed. We agreed later the Iraqi fire was moderate, and thanked God they have such poor aim. In front of the palace district, the tanks destroyed several recoilless rifles that might have been a serious annoyance to them but would have killed us in the 113. We rolled under the massive arch, the first visible dead Iraqis on the ground beside us, slumped in odd poses like carelessly discarded trashbags on the pavement.

Down the broad avenue, the column halted in front of a Versailles-like palace, topped with four gargantuan and very bizarre busts of Saddam in an Arabesque war helmet that caught our attention briefly, but the fire coming from the ditches under roadside hedges distracted us.

It was here I went over to the dark side. I spotted the silhouettes of several Iraqi soldiers looking at us from the shadows 20 feet to our left. I shouted, “There’s three of the f—— right there.”

“Where are the f——?” Howison said, spinning around in his hatch. “The f—— are right there,” I said, pointing.

“There?” he said, opening up with the 50. I saw one man’s body splatter as the large-caliber bullets ripped it up. The man behind him appeared to be rising, and was cut down by repeated bursts.

“There’s another f—— over there,” I told Howison. The two soldiers in the crew hatch with me started firing their rifles, but I think Howison was the one who got him, firing through the metal plate the soldier was hiding behind.

Some in our profession might think as a reporter and non-combatant, I was there only to observe. Now that I have assisted in the deaths of three human beings in the war I was sent to cover, I’m sure there are some people who will question my ethics, my objectivity, etc. I’ll keep the argument short. Screw them, they weren’t there. But they are welcome to join me next time if they care to test their professionalism.

When it quieted down, we followed the tanks as they busted through the metal gates of a palace. We clanked through rose gardens, past ornamental ponds, and a playground. I saw the profile of Red Platoon Sgt. Jonathan Lustig, looking intense and intent as always standing high in his tank commander’s hatch, his hands on his 50, as his tank, Achtung Baby, turned down a little lane lined with exotic shrubs.

“There’s Lustig, rolling through his enemy’s gardens,” I thought. Lustig said later he didn’t notice the roses. But he did remark that rolling among Saddam’s palaces made him think about Berlin, 1945.

“It was like rolling into the Reich’s Chancellery. The Iraqis weren’t exactly the SS, but they fought to the end. I guess you’d have to say I admire them for that. They stuck to their beliefs and fought to the end.”

Later, the Psyops track was sent back to sit with Cyclone Company at the entrance to the palace district, where the tankers destroyed several vehicles that didn’t stop and turn around quickly enough. One civilian car came racing toward us, ignoring the machine gun bursts, and was spun around and burst into flames when a main gun round slammed into its rear quarter. The driver, amazingly still alive, bailed out and tried to take cover behind the car, miraculously surviving a heavy volume of machine gun fire. Howison yelled into the radio that he was raising his hands, trying to surrender. I walked over as the medics’ tracks rolled up. There was a pistol lying by the car, and the middle-aged, heavyset man’s face was black with oily soot, his legs lacerated by shrapnel.



“We looked over curiously, as gunfire in a war zone becomes routine and doesn’t cause alarm unless it is clearly directed at you.”

I picked up a couple of packs of cigarettes lying around the car, and shared them with a couple of soldiers. Everyone had been low and a lot of people had been out for days, and they later went through the bags the Iraqi prisoners left behind to retrieve their cheap, strange-tasting smokes.


We were getting comfortable in the intersection by the big melodramatic Iraqi soldiers’ memorial –- one slumped dead, two looking forward heroically, another looking back to call his comrades forward. We were sitting up on top of the track and eating MREs a little later in the day when more AK fire sounded down by the bridge. We looked over curiously, as gunfire in a war zone becomes routine and doesn’t cause alarm unless it is clearly directed at you. That’s when we saw the flash of an RPG, which cut a bright arc through the air 30 feet in front of the 113. We let out a collective noise to the effect of “Oh s—!” and dove down into the crew hatch.

The tanks opened up with heavy fire, and started working on the date palm-dotted parklands around us, where figures were seen moving around. About 30 Iraqi soldiers later surrendered there, including one whose foot was shattered by a .50 caliber round. Most had chosen to stay in their holes, and there was only one body there.

That night, we all picked out places on the track to sleep. Howison and the Psyops guy, “RJ” Pasto, slept on top, where there are a couple of flat places. The lieutenant and the driver slept inside. I took the ramp, big and flat, and worried more that the local rats or dogs would be attracted to my feet than I worried about enemy fire. That was until I heard what sounded like incoming artillery explosions walking in. I mulled what to do about that, but hadn’t come up with any good answers that also included the possibility of sleep by the time I decided it was tank fire down two different roads. I dropped off.

Thus ended my first day in Baghdad. My fifth night is starting now. I’m got my toothbrush and my laptop back. The threat of Iraqis with RPGs has abated, and the looting has been in full swing for days.

Tonight, there has been what sounds like exuberant Arabic skyshots. Note to self: wear the Kevlar. What goes up, must come down. Now, the radio tells us the Syrian mujahideen have initiated their car-bomb campaign with several failed attempts on the American roadblocks. God, I love this place, I keep telling the GIs.

Jules Crittenden 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. Read more

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Embedded Journal: Lost Laptop… Kelly’s Death… POW Impressions… Scary Thoughts

April 10, 2003

(Editor’s note: We heard from Jules today, after several days of no communication. He reports that the Bradley fighting vehicle he was traveling in had a seized transmission, so he had to transfer quickly to another to keep up with the push to Baghdad by the army unit he’s traveling with – leaving so fast that he didn’t have time to retrieve his laptop computer from inside the other vehicle. Since then, he has been filing stories to the Boston Herald by dictating them via sat phone. Jules has indicated that he may be able to resume filing to this Embedded Journal soon. Stay tuned.) 

April 6, 2003

I just learned overnight that Michael Kelly, an Atlantic Monthly writer, was killed in a Humvee accident several days ago. I met him for the first time three weeks ago, when we climbed on the buses to head out to our units. He was going to 2nd Brigade headquarters, to do a more intellectual examination of this war than most of the rest of us can or will.

He was a friendly guy with slightly crooked glasses, small and unassuming for someone with an impressive resume such as he had. He was sitting behind me on the bus and struck up a conversation when he learned I was from the Boston Herald. We talked a little about the Red Sox, Fenway, and Boston, where Atlantic Monthly is based, and he talked a bit about the 3rd Infantry Division, which as I recall he had spent time with in the last year. He had covered them in peace and now was going to cover them in war.
   
I saw him for the second and last time exactly a week ago. The tank company I am with was in the process of destroying what turned out to be a company of Republican Guard light infantry in a date palm grove. Col. David Perkins’ command track pulled up during a lull in the fighting to survey this part of the battle. Kelly climbed out of the track, swimming in his oversized chem gear and Kevlar helmet, and gave me a friendly grin of recognition. We told each other that everything was going well, and we exchanged a few pleasantries. So I only know him as someone briefly met, who gave off a feeling of goodwill and the sense that he could never harm anyone. Hard to say that about any reporter.
    
They say traffic accidents are among the most common cause of death on the battlefield, and I guess Kelly’s death makes the point. I got the news from my wife when I called her last night, hoping to calm her after a week of sending home accounts of these skirmishes. She was in the process of writing a card to Kelly’s widow.

I remember that we also spoke briefly about our kids, and how we and our wives were handling the issue of making kids feel secure about what their dads were doing. I thought about them, about how their dad went away for what must have seemed like forever and now will not be coming home. It broke my heart.

I got to speak to my own kids on the phone last night. My little Devon told me, “Daddy, we planted plants in school yesterday,” and there was nothing more important in the world than that. Ian told me he has new sneakers and wanted to know if I was in a tank, and I said no, I was standing next to one, and we’ll build a model of it when I get home. Alex told me she went swimming with her Brownie troop the other day. They were sliding into the water, and her swimming was good.
    
My urge to go home and see them has not been stronger since I came here. This may wrap up soon. Baghdad is only about 10 miles away and things have been going well these last few days. But there still is work to be done by the soldiers and by us as well, and no one knows what awaits us there.

April 4, 2003

I don’t know what the Iraqi Republican Guard POWs thought of me as the soldiers made them lie down, searched them, and “zipstripped” their hands together. I saw some of them watching me curiously as I studied them, made notes, and moved among the officers and soldiers with some kind of independent authority, dressed like them but different and not visibly armed. Maybe some of them figured out I was a reporter. Judging from the looks, I suspect some of them may have thought I was some kind of political officer of the sort they would have attached to their units. We’re not supposed to interview the POWs and none of them spoke much English anyway, so preferring to observe rather than initiate a sideshow, I left them wondering.

Considering the beatings that captured Americans have received, I wondered what they would make of the treatment they would receive, and hoped that being fed, clothed, and given medical treatment by the Americans will make an impression on them.

April 3, 2003

Note to colleagues: Capturing the intensity of combat in prose is a difficult thing. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry much about it, as the pressure to file at all under difficult circumstances means that I must slap together accounts that lack much flourish but get the job done. Tonight, after spending most of the day sweating in a hot Bradley, sweating in chem gear, and sweating in Kevlar and body armor, with the heavy chest and back plates in, I smell bad even to myself. I am exhausted. I am working in near darkness, bolted down and cramped in this armored personnel carrier because of concern about snipers.

Interesting professional challenges have included considerations of what I will do if forced out of the Bradley by a direct hit, out onto the ground where I might find myself being fired upon directly by Iraqi soldiers. I don’t have any qualms about this. I am a non-combatant, but I am entitled to self-defense and will exercise that right if I feel circumstances dictate it. The CO and the Bradley crew members know that. I don’t expect any mercy from the Iraqis when I roll out of one of the vehicles that has been raining death on them, and do not see myself throwing up my hands to yell “Sahafi, Sahafi” — “journalist, journalist” — while the people I ride with are fighting for their lives. Fortunately, the likelihood that I will be placed in this position is not great, but this afternoon was a time when I considered the prospect.

The other challenge is whether to record remarks that may be distasteful to some, like Pvt. Baxter’s comment that this war has become “gay.” Tough call, because I don’t like to repeat offensive material, but in his own way Baxter is making a particular point, and I have tried to avoid censoring the GIs’ remarks except when they are graphically obscene, as they often are.

Jules Crittenden 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.  Read more
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Embedded Journal: The dividing line.. Bullets fly.. The distant war.. Dust everywhere.. Print vs. TV

April 1, 2003


Although media embeds are sharing the hardships and hazards of the soldiers’ lives in the Iraqi war, there is one comfort we have that may be the most important: the ability to call home. Soldiers look at my laptop and satphone arrangement, ask what it costs, how it works. They say, “So you can just pick that up and make a call anywhere in the world.” “Yeah,” I tell them. Most leave the broad hint right there. A few have suggested they would pay or barter for the service. I explain that the CO doesn’t want me doing this.


As we share the same conditions and the same exposure to hazards, it may be the single biggest dividing line, underscoring my status as a civilian. It is not that I am a non-combatant. They regard that as my misfortune, that I don’t have the same opportunity to kill the enemy that they do, and that I must ride out fights impotently. It is not that they must obey orders while I float somewhere outside the chain of command. In the stratified world of the military, they accept that some people have status and perks that they don’t have, or job descriptions that spare them some unpleasant tasks. It is my ability to communicate with the outside world and loved ones when they cannot. They envy it but so far, they don’t seem to begrudge it.

March 31, 2003

Good news about the embed process. The military -– at least the people I’m with -– won’t hold you back if you want to jump out of the track and join them where the bullets are flying. I found myself in the middle of a battlefield-clearing operation gone wrong today, and the only admonishment was that perhaps I might care to step behind that palm tree, they hadn’t quite killed them all. Any cop reporter will tell you that this doesn’t happen in the civilian world. This is good news because this means they are comfortable with us, and this project – from the media’s perspective – can be a success. We will get the unadulterated stories and images of war we came here for.

March 28, 2003


All wars have their lulls, and many wars have their false starts before the horrors of combat become known to the soldiers. In this lopsided contest, where the world’s most technologically advanced force is facing an army with antiquated and poorly-maintained weapons, one side is already fully acquainted with death and mayhem, while the other side has been experiencing it in small numbers or from afar. For those of us among the forces still positioning themselves for battle, it is still September of 1939 or early August 1914.

The soldiers remark with a sort of gee-whiz wonder that they will be war veterans when they go home, and debate about who they will tell that they didn’t actually see combat, if that is what happens.


Reporting on this still-quiet sector of the war –- the frequent sound of outgoing artillery and sight of smoke plumes on the horizon notwithstanding -– can seem as frustrating and futile as “fighting” the war seems to soldiers who have accomplished a record armored road march of hundreds of kilometers in a few days but now find themselves playing the old Army game of “hurry up and wait.” But I suspect it is also a time I might look back on fondly or perhaps with some wistfulness or sadness after the tank battles we are awaiting come to pass. I am almost tempted to stop filing, but find myself unable to do that, and figure there must be some value in recording the idle actions and thoughts of soldiers inching toward their first combat.

In any case, it is important that the wise-ass remarks of soldiers such as Pvt. Robert Baxter, 22, “Southern honky,” of Cairo, Ga., be recorded for posterity.

March 27, 2003
I remember my mother telling me a story she had heard from an Australian soldier back from the North African campaigns of World War II. He had tried in vain to protect a treasured watch. But the dust got into everything. It was one of those phrases from childhood that stuck with me.

“The dust got into everything.” Into their boots, into their clothes, into their food. I have an image in my head to this day of some Australian soldier, in his khaki shorts and desert boots, his digger hat with the brim pinned up on one side, shaking dust out of his watch. I think she must have meant Jim, a squinty-eyed outback horseman that her friend Kath had married, because he had been a soldier. She had told me he was the model for “The Digger,” a bronze bust of a soldier at the Australian War Memorial.

So here I am out in another part of the desert that stretches from Afghanistan to Morocco. Last night was the most intense of the dozen or so duststorms I have experienced in my two months here. The air turned brilliant yellow and orange in the afternoon, red at dusk, and pitch black at night. Stepping out into it, none of the surrounding vehicles were visible at all. A buddy standing a few feet away was a dim shadow. Grit flew into my mouth and formed a layer of mud on my lips. Through my dust-covered goggles, I made out something darting around my feet, a desert rat that looked like it wanted to climb up the leg of my J-list chemical warfare suit, our required attire out here.

I had tried to transmit with this laptop and my satphone for about an hour in the afternoon, but for the first time, it was impossible to get a connection. Duststorms had never stopped me before, but this time the column of dust must have been too high in the sky, and the volume of dust, the size
of the bits of dirt flying around, were too much for my Iridium. Dirt poured in the overhead hatch of the medics’ truck where I was working, with the satphone perched on the roof. It coated the keyboard and the screen of this laptop … nothing new about that, except that this time, immediately
after blowing it clear, I’d feel a new gritty layer under my fingers.
    
The sky finally cleared at midnight, and I crawled over the bodies of the soldiers I live with, three of us crammed in the back of the Bradley, forced in by the storm instead of outside under the stars.  Up in the turret, I found the laptop wouldn’t start up. I finally figured out that the pin-sized “standby” button was stuck, and I struggled to free it with a paintbrush bristle, until I finally hit on the expedient solution of turning over the laptop and slapping it. Other keys have been sticking, but so far, this laptop is hardier than I have any right to expect. I use the wet wipes that come with MREs to clear the coating of grime from the screen.

This morning, we all began our personal cleaning rituals. “Whore baths,” as the GIs call them, with baby wipes or washcloths; bucket laundry; shaking stuff out. My enduring memory of Iraq might be blowing clumps of mud out of my nose and wiping the waxy grime out of my ears. You have to be careful cleaning the crust of dirt around your eyes, or they’ll become red and inflamed. Dust is perpetually trapped in the scales and cracks of my dried-out hands, leaving them ashen. Despite multiple layers of plastic bags, everything in my ruck has its dusting. The dust gets into everything.
Near as I can tell, the only thing that remains dust-free is the inside of my waterproof diver’s watch. Nothing special about this $70 G-shock, but I think I’ll keep it.

March 26, 2003
Note to print colleagues: It turns out our TV brethren can be just as big a pain out in the middle of the Iraqi desert as they can be when you’re doorstepping a tragedy-stricken family back home, making your low-key approach, and suddenly half a dozen of them show up with their cameras.

All of us here are guests of the military, and presumably all of us are trying as hard as circumstances allow not to make nuisances of ourselves. But one TV network, which shall remain nameless but belongs to an Australian-born media mogul, is now threatening to detract from the war effort.

Informed sources report that the network’s civilian Hummer (see “Chase Vehicles”) has broken down on the hard push north, and to accommodate the media, the higher brass has determined that a line company must surrender one of its Humvees to carry the network’s not inconsiderable load of electronics, Jujubes and makeup or whatever it is they have crammed in the back.


“They’re taking my Humvee,” said a beleaguered lieutenant. “Now, they’re not saying it’s for the TV guys, but their little super Hummer is broken down, and now Brigade needs mine. Seems like a bit of a coincidence. Our chief went down to fix theirs so they won’t take ours.


“Why would the media want this? It’s obviously a military vehicle. It’s a target,” the lieutenant said.


“Well,” I explained, “Usually they want anything and everything they can get their hands on.”


“It sucks. It’s embarrassing,” the lieutenant said. “It’s one thing if they want it for soldiers who need it.”


The lieutenant has a tank he can ride in, but the two maintenance men who had been using the Humvee to sleep in, run critical maintenance errands, and follow the convoy will have to find something else to ride in. Too bad the M88 tank hauler is also down, another casualty of this road march.

Jules Crittenden 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.  Read more

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Embedded Journal: Avoiding Civilian Casualties & Other Notes to Colleagues

March 25, 2003
One of the great joys of life and journalism is that every day brings a new experience. Today, it is typing and transmitting from the turret of a Bradley, my head next to the breech of the 25 mm cannon. They asked me not to touch anything, which is harder than it might sound. This is like building a ship model in a bottle. On this extended maintenance and rest stop, everyone else is staying down in the rear compartment, out of the dust storm that has been blowing since last night, increasing in intensity to near brownout conditions. The tank 50 feet away is barely visible, as is my dust-coated keyboard. There is no room for my equipment down below and my maintenance pals are busy working on tanks stressed by our fast-paced –- for armor –- and extended road trip.

March 24, 2003
The threat of civilian casualties was one of the primary concerns raised by anti-war protesters before this war began, and in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Baghdad 1990, caused significant public affairs problems for the military. 

The fact is that, for the amount of high explosives expended, the numbers of civilians killed by the U.S. military in recent conflicts in no way comes close the numbers killed by the crude methods of World War II, a war few people argued about the worth of. While most people, including soldiers, abhor the idea of any civilian deaths, the remarkable track record of the U.S. military in conducting massive airstrikes with historically-low civilian casualty rates suggests that politics may play as great a role as humanitarian concerns does in opposition to any given action, and this one in particular.

In the small piece of this war I am able to witness -– largely what I hear on the radio when locked down in the back of a fire-support Bradley during combat operations -– there is a great and institutionalized concern about civilian casualties. The concern may be in part directed by politics, and in part due to the investigations and court-martials pilots who killed friendly forces and civilians in Afghanistan faced.

Traveling with an armor battalion that has the power to open up with its own guns or call in artillery  and air support, I have heard the discussions between cavalry scouts, forward air and artillery observers, and company commanders, speaking with higher command at the battalion and brigade level about the nature of potential targets and whether to fire. 

Generally, though it is sometimes to the frustration of soldiers on the ground, I have witnessed a high degree of caution about giving the order to fire on suspect vehicles and people without visual confirmation of hostile intent. However, there has been no hesitation about ordering strikes on areas where enemy fire is coming from, or on approaching enemy tank columns.

At the lowest levels, young soldiers show an eagerness to fight and use their weapons, but a high degree of discipline exists, despite tense situations that might have caused civilian casualties. NCOs and officers tend to be more in tune with the benefits of restraint, though as professional soldiers they are equally eager to fight this war. >>Read related story in the Boston Herald

Jules Crittenden 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. 
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Embedded Journal: Overnight Bradley toward Baghdad

An AP writer who has covered conflicts in Congo and Rwanda called this a “starter war” on the first morning of our embedding nearly two weeks ago, because the U.S. military provides most of our needs…food, water, some degree of shelter and security, and some degree of access to power … all of which can be daily struggles in more remote, less industrialized theaters of war.    

But despite the awesome power of the U.S.military and all that makes possible, filing at all was impossible for more than 36 hours as we rolled blitzkrieg style through the desert on the southern flank of the Euphrates valley.  My world consisted entirely of a roughly six-foot-by-six-foot armored space in the back of a Bradley, with only two narrow periscope ports to view the world, packed with gear and shared with a gangly six-foot-six soldier, all elbows, knees and size-14 boots.  We slept, ate cold MREs and pissed in bottles and handed them up the turret for the gunner to toss out.  Everything rattled and vibrated constantly.  But sooner or later you get used to anything, and it all began to seem normal.  I composed snatches of stories in my head, dozed off to disturbing dreams in which I was detached from the column, in old familiar places with old friends and acquaintances, but worried about finding my way back to the column.  The column was leaving, and I had to get on.    

My satphone wouldn’t work through the thick steel armor, and out brief refueling and maintenance stops were occupied entirely with eating, defecating by the road and stretching. In any case, we were barred from reporting this movement until it was done, the Army’s idea being to shock the Iraqis with the sudden appearance of a tank brigade on their flanks.

Jules Crittenden 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. 
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Embedded Journal: Building Trust With Soldiers, Readers

My first night out in the desert with the Joes, the soldier bunking next to me stumbled in, bleeding from his forehead, sat on his cot and began vomiting.  There was a strong reek of what smelled like medicinal alcohol. My immediate thought was that he might be in danger of serious injury or death. Another soldier and I helped him outside.  As other soldiers tended to him outside the tent in a raging duststorm, I told the platoon sergeant, “Don’t sweat it. That didn’t happen.”

I’m 42 years old and have lived a life. These things happen, and it’s probably happened to most of us at one time or another. I was not about to step in it on my first night here, when I needed to develop trust with these soldiers I live with and very soon will ride with into battle. If it turned out there was a persistent problem with drunkenness in the unit, I would deal with that later.

The next day, as I witnessed how this situation was dealt with, my perspective changed.  I approached the sergeant and told him I wanted to write about it.  I told the company commander the same.  They told me I had the right to write anything I wanted, and they told me later the battalion commander said: “Let him do it.” The brass had assured us from the start, we can write the good, the bad and the ugly, as long as we don’t compromise operational security.

I told them I considered myself honor-bound by what I had said to the sergeant that night, and would not transmit anything without his agreement.  I assured him it would reflect what I consider the significant elements of this incident…not that some young soldiers, human like the rest of us and living with months of boredom and stress, screwed up, but how it was addressed and what that said about the Army.  Other enlisted men I spoke later to assured me that the discipline meted out was not unusual for such an infraction, that the response was not something staged for my benefit.

This was the first test of my embed.  Some in the embedded media have been afraid of being co-opted by the military, losing their independence.  There is no question that it is nearly impossible to live with a group of well-intentioned men in trying circumstances and not feel yourself slowly becoming one of them, even though you are never fully one of them, can leave when you want, and must remain independent enough to write things they will not like.

This incident, exceedingly minor in the context of what is about to happen, in how it played out has helped build the trust between us that is necessary for this embed to be successful.  Although I don’t regret having done it, I will think twice before I say the words “That didn’t happen” again.  The soldiers I have been dealing with appreciate that someone like myself, a member of the media no less, actually has a sense of honor and concern for the unit’s pride in handling a humiliating incident that would never make the papers in a civilian context.  But it has now been discussed and is understood between us in this line company that whatever happens, it will be dealt with straightforwardly and in accordance with our respective duties on both sides.

Jules Crittenden 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.  Read more

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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.

“Like, emails?”

“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
goes on.

“Staring at the (expletive) fire … mesmerizing,” says the platoon
sergeant.

“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. Read more

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Embedded Journal: From the Desert

KUWAIT –  When the Army finished running the embedded press through the morning’s chemical warfare training, they gave us a little downtime.  After rising at 5 a.m., it was time for a little chow.

My favorite part of the U.S. military press center’s chow line is that salad with the little baby octopi in it. The Thai beef salad is also nice. But that five-star brunch buffet is part of the life we left back at the Kuwait Hilton with the public affairs officers. This morning, it was T-rations, big trays of food of which the primary appetizing quality is that it is hot. 

They called it “Omelet with Bacon,” and I’ll take their word that is what it was.
    
Tonight, a heavy duststorm has cut us off from every other tent and encampment, and almost from the cots beside ours, seeping in and filling the air.

The international press is now out in the khaki world, living out of our over-packed rucksacks, rummaging around for electronics and toothpaste, with sand in everything. We are part of a big experiment to see if the media and the military can play well together, after decades of mutual suspicion.

“Welcome to the desert,” said Col. Dave Perkins, who commands the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, a combined force of dozens of Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. “We see this as an unprecendented opportunity to get the story out … the truth about the operation.
   
“You will see the extent to which we go to avoid collateral damage, civilian damage, and even to avoid damage to the Iraqi Army. We spend a lot of time on that,” Perkins said. “I really believe this will be a new way of doing business for the military and the media.”

Perkins and his battalion commanders say they will place reporters in combat vehicles, close to the lead elements. They will let them in on classified battle plans in advance, to help them understand and be prepared to report on what is happening, with the understanding that it will not be
reported until after it has been put into effect against the enemy.
   
Back in Kuwait City, the media embed “inprocessing,” as it is aptly bureaucratically refered to, gave us a good preparatory dose of standard military issue “hurry up and wait,” as we spent hours waiting for various steps to be accomplished, standing in lines, or just milling about the Hilton lobby in our fatigues, sipping the Songbird Café’s exquisite “Bittersweet” lime and mint concoctions — $7 a pop, and that’s without any of the forbidden devil water, of course.
   
They put us on the buses around 3 p.m., still without telling us which units we were headed for.  We tried to figure it out from looking at the faces around us, trying to divine… is this the cool bus or the geek bus?  Are we headed for frontline combat units or someplace in the rear?  Is there any way to triangulate what any of this means?

Third ID PAO Maj. Mike Birmingham finally gave up the information he had been holding tight for weeks -– not wanting to deal with the whining and horsetrading of dissatisfied reporters. Our bus was headed to the 2nd Brigade. Two NBC guys who have spent four months in the desert dogging the division confirmed that this was a very good thing for reporters who want to report on the action.
    
“This is a good place to be,” said one NBC guy. So Birmingham had been true to his word when he said he would make me happy. I was headed for the 4/64 Battalion Task Force, with two companies of Abrams tanks, a company of mechanized infantry in Bradleys, some artillery, engineers and scouts.  The fundamental warfighting force of  the U.S. Army.
    
Now, I am working in a tent beside some Joes who are watching “Silence of the Lambs” on a laptop.  The generator-powered fluorescent lights overhead glow through a heavy haze of dust and the tent walls are flapping loudly in the builoding wind.
    
Perkins: “”We see this as an unprecendented opportunity to get the story out.”If it weren’t for the duststorm, we could see the trash fires and working lights of dozens of encampments around us, dotting the low rises and shallow depressions out to the horizon in this otherwise featureless landscape.
    
Throughout the day, Humvees scurry between encampments, and helicopters fly low overhead. But in this assembly area, where troops are gathered in advance of moving to their attack positions, the formal gunnery training has ended, and the deep reverberation of  artillery fire is rarely heard as
crews test-fire newly arrived weapons. Other camps, like Spartan, are scattered for miles around.
   
After months of massing, acclimatizing and training in the desert, this army of more than 100,000 troops a few miles south of the Iraqi border is restless, sensing that war is near.
   
“Down at the line companies, they are ready to do this. They are like dogs on leashes,” said Lt. Harry Heintz, 24, of Georgia, who handles logistics for the 4th Battalion of the 64th Armor Regiment, part of the 3rd Infantry’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. Heintz’ job is making sure all the tanks are fueled, the soldiers are fed and watered, and crews have all the ammo they will need for the ride into Iraq … if and when Pres. Bush orders them forward.
    
Battalion commander LTC Philip deCamp said he is confident in his tankers’ ability to overwhelm the enemy when they meet them. Despite the technological advantages of the M1A1 Abrams tank over the Russian-made T-72s used by the Iraqi Republican Guard, deCamp said he is placing his faith in
the soldiers.

“Training is key. Our guys are better trained and better supported. That is what is going to make the difference, as opposed to technology,” deCamp said.
    
At Spartan, the soldiers’ life has gone from rough to rugged in the past two weeks since they vacated the relatively civilized Camp New York a few miles away to make way for newly-arrived troops.
   
“Here, we’re more focused,” joked Lt. Anthony Martinez, 25, of Miami, Fla., the battalion’s liaison officer, who coordinates planning with the brigade staff. “There are a lot more whens than ifs.  Everyone’s more aware that we’ve entered the next phase.  Everything is being double-checked and
triple-checked.”

After months of massing, acclimatizing and training in the desert, this army of more than 100,000 troops a few miles south of the Iraqi border is restless, sensing that war is near.In their tents, soldiers can be seen cleaning and checking their gas masks and taking weapons apart, cleaning them and putting them back together.
   
“I asked them to put graphite on all the moving parts. They covered the whole thing with it. That made it a dust magnet,” said Staff Sgt. Gordon Baker, Tannersville, Pa., who was cradling a .50 caliber machine gun’s heavy receiver and wiping it down with rubbing alcohol.
   
In Camp New York, when the soldiers weren’t working on their small-arms marksmanship, gunnery or urban warfare tactics, they could stand in line for Internet access or a chance to call home. They had a MWR tent –- Morale, Welfare and Recreation -– with arcade games, coolers full of ice cream,
tables for cards and board games. All that is gone.

“We’ve got a dartboard and that’s about it,” said PFC Michael Stelly, 19, of Lafayette, La., but he added: “Everybody has his own Gameboy Advance.”

The regular physical training sessions have been suspended, Martinez said.

“We’re just hoping its not for too long,” said Stelly, who has spent 110 days in the Kuwaiti desert. “Everybody would rather get rolling. Move, in one direction or the other.”

Coming out of a morning planning session, SFC Ronald Kester of Asbury, N.J., joked, “I actually heard a lot of common sense in there.”

“Well, that means we’re going to war, if they are using common sense again,” said Martinez.  He joked, mimicking the kind of thing a civilian boss would say: “Uh, we’re going to need you to work Saturday…you think you can come in a little early?”

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. Read more

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