...Giant Brain Bugs and Dinosaur Zombies...


I’ve been carrying on about how this mission is a breeze, that I’m just driving around collecting a pay check, that Iraq has changed and they’ll be ready for a Disney Land soon and so on.  And who knows, it could all very well be true, but I will admit a small personal confession regarding my comfort levels while traversing the streets of Baghdad.  I am uncomfortable.

Before each mission there is a briefing.  One portion of this lecture is dedicated to the coming attractions.  The Army calls this a 24-hour roll-up.  It is a detailed lay out of all the bad things the enemy has done or tried to do or plans to do along our route.  For example, “Along checkpoint whatever, insurgents were using giant brain bugs to suck out key information from leaders while the arachnids fought off the gun trucks.” Only, the threats are real and not some silly antics of an accidental comedy.  More like, “We found a billion pounds of a new super-duper explosive agent, rigged to go off by voice activated conversations of baseball, apple pie and Elvis Presley.”  Only again, slightly more serious in nature.

I can’t imagine what a person who has never gone through or past or at least near an explosion that was meant to kill them would make of these briefings—and most of my soldiers would fall into that group.  But I have gone through all of that nonsense, and my imagination works just fine, if not too well.

So there we were, driving down this street just past that marker, and something from the briefings pops into my head, like, I don’t know, Dinosaur Zombies or something.  And I see a goofy pile of trash or rocks or an odd patch of sand on the side of the road.  And my ass cheeks pucker in tight and I start leaning my kevlar helmet down to cover my neck, and I’ve suddenly forgotten what my truck mates and I have been talking about until…nothing.  Oh, well.

The streets are nothing like back when I remember.  Well, they’re still lined with burning garbage and in more need for repair and up-grade than I-95 south of Lauderdale.    What I mean to say is, I can so clearly remember a time when the skies were lit up with tracer rounds, and not a day would pass without a patrol being hit by small arms or mortars or IEDs or something.  And those attacks must be engraved so deeply somewhere up in my brain that the muscles in my ass trigger out of reflex, even though I’m fairly certain I’m safe.  Let’s call it 80%-20%.

- The Exodus


...Faces Part III...

SGT. Bryan Muhlbach / PFC. Robert Manning / SGT. Jeremy Heyne / SPC. Chris Adkins / SPC. Victor Diaz

- The Exodus


...the Sticks...

20 MAR 2010

I didn’t sleep last night. I wasn’t troubled or disturbed or anything silly like that. I had an Army Physical Fitness Test at 0300 and I chose to make it a red-eye. At 0230, I put down one of those five-hour, heart attack inducing, probably extract of crack, foul tasting to-boot, energy drinks. Remember the scene in A Clockwork Orange, where the old lady thinks the refrigerator is after her?

And then, with the taste of cheap stimulants still lingering between the creases of my crooked teeth, the APFT was cancelled. I spent the next hour on a treadmill, running away from hostile kitchen appliances that only exist in some cult classic. And when my impersonation of a hamster on a wheel ended, I had a shower, and then sat on the steps to my billets for a smoke.

It was there on the steps with more cheap stimulants, that I heard a familiar and heartwarming, ka-clank. I thought of the Sticks; the docks when all the boats are in, with sails stowed and masts all waving on the shoreline like a patch of tall sea grass. The wind blows through and rolls the grass so and ka-clank. Then the wake pushes past and rolls the grass back and ka-clank. Sleeping on the deck of a boat. If the beer, wine and rum don’t put you to bed, the metronome of a rocking sea will.

Unfortunately though, I was not in the Sticks. I was sitting on the steps to my billets, in the middle of a desert, with a dust storm lingering about. I was watching a flagpole’s pulley dancing about and every-so-often slapping into the metal and ka-clank. Too bad, I guess.

I have spent the remainder of my sleepless day preparing for the next mission—checks and inspections, weapons cleaning and vehicle maintenance, typical Army stuff—earning my paycheck and so on. When time finally permitted sleep, Stephen King’s, Pennywise wouldn’t let me rest in peace. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a bad dream. Oh well, no time for bastard clowns, I’m going back to Baghdad tomorrow. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Baghdad too.

- The Exodus


...Faces Part II...

SGT. Chris Nobles / SPC. Tim Sartori / SGT. Daniel Russell / PFC. Wayne Chattin /  PFC. Brandon Cornwell

- The Exodus


...one ticket to Moscow...

16 MAR 2010

I just ran into a buddy of mine.  He just got back from the shit.  He told me it was hell, man.  At one of their transit stops, he said their air conditioner broke down.  There wasn’t anything they could do, so they just had to sweat.  War, man, it changes you.  Nobody can come home from that OK, and if they do, I don’t think I could trust’em, man.

OK, enough of that, else my father sends me an angry message.

There have been reports of improvised explosive devices, some found, some detonated.  And there’s been some small arms fire too.  Mostly rock throwing though.  My team hasn’t seen any of that yet.  And, no matter how many times they ask me, I don’t know if we will.  The consistency of my ignorance hasn’t deterred their questions any.  Their parents too, got a round of Q&A with me at our farewell ceremony.  I didn’t have any answers for them either.  I get through most of these moments with a sympathetic shoulder shrug.  Not unlike the look I give poor little puppy dogs in a pet shop window, when I know I have no intention to buy one.

The only answer I’ve offered to the pooches, coupled with my typical nonchalance, is the utterance of “50-50”.  Either they’ll see our withdraw and try to take advantage, or they’ll see our withdraw and rejoice; once again minding their own business and focusing on the normal qualms of life—do I need a new roof, do I show my family enough attention, my goats look hot and tired, and so on.

An interesting note of happiness, our two weeks leave dates have been posted.  My team goes off some time in September.  That’s a long time from now, I guess.  But I try to look at it as, “I’ve never seen New York City in the fall.”  So there’s that.

They tell me the leave process has changed a little since my last go around; all you have to do is walk into the airport here and name a destination, and poof, you have a ticket.  I’ve been thinking about showing up at the counter in a suit with black out sunglasses, with a handcuff briefcase labeled Top Secret, money and fake documents all bulging out the seams.  I would say, in whatever Russian accent I’m able to muster, “Hello, I need one ticket to Moscow.”  And then five or so of my buddies could run in with full battle rattle, rifles pointed, and I would say to the agent, “And I am in a hurry.”

That would most likely result in my second detention in a foreign country (if you can count Canada).  I imagine some Government desk jockey looking over some classified report with my name on it, shaking his head and thinking, “What an idiot.”

- The Exodus


...Faces Part I...

Boredom in all of its glory has attacked me with full vengeance. There is only so many times you can go to the USO to surf the web or browse the PX for crap you don’t need or watch movies; and I’ve reached my limit. Just about everyone in Bravo Co. has gone on a mission into Iraq and I’ve been stuck at Buehring trying to keep myself entertained. Two and a half years it’s taken me to get here and a multiple entry visa into Kuwait is what is keeping me from photographing the unit doing what they came here to do; convoy security during the pull-out. My ultimate goal was to create a book documenting everything from mobilization training through the deployment and finishing with the men and women returning home. All I can do is curse and become more frustrated.

So instead of wallowing in my self-pity and boredom, I’m going to start a portrait series of Bravo Co. while I wait. Initially I was going to only shoot portraits with my Holga and develop the film once I returned home, but due to my boredom, I will be shooting digital portraits as well as film in order to keep myself occupied. Here is a selection of my first group of victims.

Sipping on an espresso while uploading photos...for some this sounds great, but for me, I feel like I’m at an all time low. At least the heat and sand are keeping me from being completely pampered. If we only had a swimming pool and fruity drinks with little umbrellas……….I’ve left Ft. Hood and I’m still in Purgatory. Waiting.

- The Exodus

Sgt. Juan Luna / Pvt. Aaron Wright / Sgt. Troy McElwee / Sgt. Matthew Bertelli / Pfc. Juan Aguero / My killer studio!


...smiling that smile...


The Chaplain came by to pray with us before our first mission.  When he finished, I took out a packet of salt, poured it into my hand and threw it over my right shoulder.  It was an attempt to make witty mockery of an absurd situation.  Whatever my intentions were meant to be, they had been lost.  All of my soldiers, and quite seriously so, agreed that I should have used my left shoulder.  Too bad, I thought.

The drive to Adder was, as predicted, uneventful.  We arrived some time near 0200, drew billets, ate and went to bed.  I do remember one additional heart beat the moment we crossed into Iraq, but, I imagine, it was for memory of the past, not concern for the future.  Regardless, it was a lonely extra tha-thump; spaced far and evenly from all that followed.

We all had to find ways to fill the hurry up and wait that came the next day.  I rode the bus.  All of those FOBs have bus lines; routes designated by color, color designated by destination.  I rode the purple bus.  It brought me to and from nowhere.  It was a continuous line to disappointment.  Every time we stopped, I jokingly asked myself, “Are we there, yet?”  And the sad comedy of reality answered again and again, “No. Not yet.”  I remember The Never Ending Story, and that, in my youth, I could never understand trying to out run nothingness.  I understand now. 

The drive south was much the same as our journey north, save one note worthy event.  Only a few hundred meters short of Kuwaiti sands, one of our escorted vehicles broke down.  In the wait for repair, two of the soldiers we’re here to relieve, took the opportunity to put their missions into Iraq behind them one step at a time.  When I drove across the border, I found one of them with his thumb out.  We drove home with the dirt and dust still covering his boots.  He was smiling.  And I thought of the year ahead, and my hopes of smiling that smile.

- The Exodus


...this is my deployment...

10 MAR 2010

I worry that my boonie cap is too large and floppy on top of my head.  The Post Exchange is having a hard time managing with the constant re-shelving required in the wake of the 53rd’s infestation of this desert mound.  I could choose between extra large or small, large and floppy or tight and tiny.  Now I slink about like a lost little Gilligan, not getting respect or the girl or plotting clever ways to leave this island, just offering a temporary poke of comic relief and every-so-often falling ass backwards into ruining everyone’s fun.  And I think, “This is my deployment?”

My first mission is tomorrow morning.  There’s no rush of adrenaline, no nervous tick or tapping foot, the only pressing matter of mine is this massive boonie cap, laid out on the table like a cheap dinner cloth.  Some Army Strong kitsch motif belonging to some washed out war hero, who, one day, will mix and match five different uniforms and stand on the roadside asking for change.  “This is my deployment.”

I feel no different than I did all those nights at snow-covered Hood, waiting for tomorrow’s training to begin—but of course, now I have the comforts of espresso, and the idle time to daydream of a boonie cap running off its pounds on a treadmill, hoping to please its partner and not be left for a younger and skinnier piece of head gear.  And now I realize I’ve given description of some cartoon doodle tangent pasted to the inner walls of my skull and I think, “Oh my God, this is my deployment…”

- The Exodus


...Reindeer Games Part II...


There are a few last minute boxes to check; more training, more reindeer games, more hurry up and wait. Oh well, life goes on. The unit we’re replacing is showing us the ropes, equipment stuff, route stuff. So far, the most useful thing they’ve shown me is Starbucks, all else will fall into place. You must, by now, imagine I’m a Starbucks spokesperson. I’m not. I just like coffee and central air.

We’ve already spent some good time playing out in the sand. It’s only been a few days but the routine of deployment has already begun to chip away at the memory of life lived back home. It’s easier now to remember my stories of Iraq than Boca Raton. I have so many more ‘for examples’ now when my soldiers ask me ‘what if’ questions. I bored them for over an hour last night when I put them to bed with an ‘I remember when fairy tale’.

I’ve thought of my ex-wife a lot too. We were married ‘back when I remember’. The divorce came just a short while after that deployment ended. We walked away from each other for a great many reasons, mainly though, I imagine, we were far too young. I don’t hate her, or have any other obnoxious resentment towards her you’d expect from a fallen marriage. I love her still, and hope she is well. This place simply reminds me of a time when we were together, and I could expect mail from her daily. And I catch myself thinking now, “huh, where’s today’s letter from Becky?”

I’ve been looking around for old friends too, soldiers who, I know, have left Uncle Sam’s Army a while back. Like calling out to a familiar face at a grocery store, only to be met by a stranger’s reply. All these memories, the old faces and sights and sounds, the routine of being the soldier version of myself, they have all lead to one unexpected—clearly an understatement—conclusion: I have missed this place. And the civilian version of me thinks, “…I’m not saying I’d like to build a summer home here, but the trees are actually quite lovely…”

There are those thoughts of home I have yet to place on the backburner of my mind. I miss my dog. And I worry he’s being fed too much. I miss nights on the sailboat and kicking off my mornings with vodka in tomato juice. I miss the look of a scruffy beard when I catch myself in the mirror. Mainly though, I miss the idea of Holiday, and living in a constant state of calm; the half grin smiles I bare when the best joys of life walks beside me.

I wish I could say I’ll miss them all the same tomorrow, and the next day. But I won’t. I’m cursed, or blessed, with the gift of foresight this time around. The longer I am here, the more here I will be. And, I imagine, it won’t take long at all. When I go back to New York months from now on leave, I’m sure I’ll catch myself thinking, “Oh, this is Holiday…”. But, oh well, life goes on. I know that when I finally go home, no matter where my mind is, my dog—probably obese by then—will remember me, and he’ll be happy to play fetch.

- The Exodus


...reflection part III...

I find myself staring at roughly 170 photos from Ft. Hood that I’ve yet to edit and send off to be added to the 245 photos I have already archived. My goal, upon entering Kuwait, was to share a handful of photos that summed up the entire mobilization training at Ft. Hood. That was not possible since my week went something like this: not being able to eat at the DFAC, having a room with second platoon, getting kicked out of the room in second platoon, not being able to eat, almost being deported, finding a new room with third platoon, not being able to eat, sleeping in transient tents at Ali Al Salem, not being able to eat, getting my IDs at Arifjan, coming back to Buehring (not deported) and swamping the blog with a bunch of posts Giunta had written...and finally being able to eat at the DFAC after finding out all I needed was a bloody stamp on my ITO.

I was lucky enough to be able to stuff my face at the many fast food chains that have graced Buehring. It’s a weird feeling being in a so-called ‘combat’ zone and eating at a Burger King, KFC, or Taco Bell; the whole sense of danger and adventure seems to be lost. Hearing that the terrorist threat here at Camp Buehring is still high baffles me, I have more of a chance getting killed or hurt back at home crossing the street. Grant it, I will be going into Iraq quite frequently, but the war here has come to a halt for Coalition Forces, allegedly. It seems the Iraqis are too busy killing themselves during the elections to even care about the withdrawal. Don’t get me wrong this is nothing to complain about, but I wonder if I will be the only photographer to spend a year in a ‘combat’ zone and be as green as the day I arrived.

The cluster *f-bomb* that this blog has become over the past few days should hopefully start to clean up in the near future. Giunta has written some great stuff below these photos, so I strongly suggest you dig back if you haven’t already read them.

- The Exodus