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Going to War: Life at TQ, Chuck Norris Visits and Mass Casualties

While we prepared for our first mission we adjusted to what life was like on a large airbase and logistics hub. Ta Qaddum is one of the larger Iraq Air Force bases from Saddam’s time but has a history going back to the old Royal Air Force base at Habbinyah which is just down the hill.  In 1941 the Iraqi Army laid siege to the British forces in Habbinyah from the escarpment that overlooks the town from what is now the northern edge of TQ.  One only has to imagine the feelings of the Iraqi soldiers short on supply and exposed to air attack on the escarpment while waiting for German intervention only to be driven off by the British when their relief force arrived from Jordan.

iraqi bomber at tqWrecked Iraqi Bomber at TQ

The Iraqi legacy on the base looms in some of the infrastructure as well as the hulks of Soviet made Iraqi Air Force bomber and fighter aircraft near the edge of the airfield.  When I was there in 2007-2008 the base was under the command of the 2nd Marine Logistics Group or 2nd MLG.  The MLG is a command and control headquarters for logistics support units of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.  It is tailored to support the Ground Combat Element, the 2nd Marine Division and the Air Combat Element, the 2nd Marine Air Wing and attached units.  Its function is similar to an Army Corps Support Command or whatever the Army calls them now.  TQ was also the home of several helicopter squadrons Marine and Army as well as a local defense force at the time made up of the 1st Battalion 11th Marines from Camp Pendleton. 1/11 was an artillery battalion but was being primarily used as a security and convoy protection force.  Other units including Navy Seabees and Army logistics units operated from TQ.  A Marine Infantry Battalion was stationed in Habbinyah while elements of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were operating in the area as part of the surge.

The base is about mid-range on the amenity scale for troop comfort. At the time we were there the only non-DFAC/ Chow Hall was the Green Beans Coffee trailer as opposed to places like Al Asad and Camp Victory which had a multiplicity of fast food places for the troops.  The Marines are tougher on communication security than the Army and many websites which troops could use on other bases were unavailable unless one went to the Iraqi internet café or the MWR computer and phone center.  The Iraqi run shop had the fastest internet on the base but you had to contend with huge amounts of second hand smoke and pay a nominal charge to use it.  The MWR facility often had broken machines, had a waiting list to use them and the connections were very poor with pages slower to load that the old dial up days.  On the plus side TQ did have a relatively decent Marine Corps exchange, not as big as Al Asad or Camp Victory, but one of the larger exchanges in Iraq and second only to Al Asad in the West.  Most places including Ramadi had pretty small and not well stocked exchanges.  TQ had nice fitness center facilities which I used a lot being coached by Nelson.

060Chaplains and RPs with Chuck Norris

The base MWR worked with the USO and other agencies to bring sports stars or celebrities to the base.  Just before we left on our first mission Chuck Norris came through.  Chuck was made an “Honorary Marine” a few years back and has made it his task to try to meet every Marine deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaking the hand of each one he met.  The chapel was the host facility for the visit which last about 2 hours in which Chuck pressed the flesh and had his picture taken with probably close to 5000 Marines and other personnel, maybe more.  The Chaplains were drafted to be the photographers and I lost count of how many different types of digital cameras that I took pictures with.  Chuck enjoyed the heck out of Nelson and was impressed with his fighting resume.  I think that Nelson got more face time with Chuck than anyone on the base and he deserved it.  Chuck was accompanied by Chaplain Langston and RP1 Roland our friend from Fallujah.  After they were done he had to get on the waiting helo and fly out to his next stop.

058Chuck and Nelson

The chow halls, of which there were two, were large and usually had a pretty good menu.  I especially came to like the Indian nights where Indian specialties were served.  Since many of the cooks employed by Gulf Catering who had the contract were Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or from Ceylon so it generally was pretty good unless they had to scrounge for suitable ingredients.  I like the curry chicken, but occasionally it was made with chicken nuggets when the real chicken was in short supply.  It almost reminded me of the Spam Lamb in the TV series M*A*S*H or the great quote out of the movie Meatballs: “Attention. Here’s an update on tonight’s dinner. It was veal. I repeat, veal. The winner of tonight’s mystery meat contest is Jeffrey Corbin who guessed “some kind of beef.”   I think that there were a number of times when I really wondered what the meat was.  They usually had a pretty good salad bar unless resupply convoys were interrupted and fresh vegetables had run out.  There were a number of times where the pickins were slim and Nelson and I had to get creative.  Breakfast was usually good with a good choice of food choices, some even healthy.  The workers were great, always friendly despite working 12 hour days 6 days a week for $300 a month.  Many had signed up through agencies which cost them $4000 so the first year that many worked was for nothing.  It was in my opinion a case of a KBR/ Halliburton subcontractor using them in effect as indentured servants and pretty well damned close to slaves, all legal by the US Government.  I thought that it was pretty immoral and certainly a case of a company contracted by the government reducing labor costs on the back of some of the poorest people in the world. Back at the end of the Cold War the military downsized and eliminated most of the Army and Marine mess specialists which paved the way for the contracting industry, led by the former Secretary of Defense and his Halliburton team to begin their massive contracting operations with the Bosnia deployments back in 1995.  They were limited to their own compound far away from anything and were always the last to eat.  They were polite and really tried to accommodate sometimes rude and condescending Americans, the local management did the best they could to give them good accommodations but were limited by their parent company.  Many of the workers were Roman Catholic or Anglican Christians  and Fr Jose had a great ministry that he took on to support them by going to their camp a couple of times a week to celebrate Mass.  His masses were packed and what a source of life and the love of God he was to so many people at TQ, Americans and non-Americans alike.

988Fr Jose on the bank of the Euphrates at Habbinyah

About a week after we got to TQ Marines from the battalion in Habbinyah were hit in an IED complex ambush while on patrol.  A couple of vehicles were hit, Jose was across the base celebrating Mass and Pat was in Fallujah.  A chaplain was needed in the Shock Surgical Trauma Unit or SSTP.  Wounded were being brought in, the platoon had been hit hard, 14 wounded and a couple killed.  I figured that since I was a pretty experienced trauma and critical care chaplain who had dealt with over 500 deaths, many traumatic with bullet wounds, burns and the host of other types of trauma, and tended to probably twice that many who did not die that I could handle this.  When I got to the SSTP I was greeted by a couple of nurses and docs and briefed as to what was going on.  Within a few minutes the casualties were beginning to roll in as the UH-60 Dust-off MEDIVAC helicopters landed and teams went out to meet them.  Some were ambulatory, or walking wounded bandaged with lacerations and burns on their faces and upper bodies, other were brought in on stretchers and ushered into the treatment beds in the area outside the OR.  It was like a scene out of M*A*S*H as the well honed surgical teams, surgeons, anesthetists, nurses and corpsmen went to work.  I now work with a number of these fine people. I was able to make my way about to the wounded Marines, praying with some, holding hands as and with a couple performing the sacrament of healing, or the anointing of the sick.  As I listen to Marines, prayed with them or anointed them there was a tremendous sense that this was different than what I did at Parkland or Cabell-Huntington.  These young men wore the same uniform that I wore, served the same country that I served and travelled the same roads that I would soon be on.  As each was assessed and moved off to surgery, prepared for further evacuation or treated and sent to a ward I noticed the little things about each of them.  The wounds, the torn uniforms, the burns and even the tattoos, these were our guys, they weren’t gang bangers or criminals but young Americans fighting a brutal war against a enemy that had terrorized Iraqis and found devastating ways to kill Americans.  Some of the Marines asked if they would be okay, others asked about friends and in those moments I learned what it was to care and be with men traumatized by the violence and brutality of war against an enemy that would not fight by our rules, much as the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong refused to fight our war.  The enemy was clever and determined and his weapons were deadly.

Stars and Stripes sstpTQ Surgical During Mass Casualty Event (Stars and Stripes Photo)

The teams did their work quickly and soon the event in the ER was done as the Marines were moved off to OR, the ward or further evacuation. I spent some time talking with unit Corpsmen and less wounded Marines and learned about the attack. They were in a convoy heading back to Habbinyah when the there was an enemy contact ahead of them.  As they moved forward to engage a primary and secondary IED hit the convoy heavily damaging two trucks with an ensuing firefight.  The Marines fought off their attackers, the wounded were treated and security set up as Dust-off came in to evacuate the wounded.  I thought back to my days as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army and remembered my friends who had elected to apply for flight school to become Dust-off pilots.  I remembered learning to call in MEDIVAC missions and some of the Army MSC aviators that I knew; some had flown in Vietnam, being a Dustoff pilot can be a sporty occupation.  They fly an unarmed bird into hot landing zones and get badly wounded troops to medical facilities in 100 degree plus weather without killing them enroute, those guys are good. As the crowd dissipated I spend so time with some of the staff.  Eventually with night having fallen I began the walk back to my office in the Chapel.  I looked up at the night sky, in the darkness a another UH-60 sat down to pick up others being evacuated on to Baghdad or Balad.  I looked up at the sky and saw more stars than I had seen at any time since I was at sea on the USS HUE CITY.  It was amazing; it looked like you could almost walk across them from horizon to horizon. When I got to my office I checked on my our mission status, I had submitted our first Air Support Request earlier in the day, of course it had not moved yet, but at least it gave me something to do.  I checked my unclassified e-mail and knew that there was nothing that I could share with anyone so I looked at baseball scores, checked a couple of news sites and headed off to my “can.”

medivacPackaging a Casualty for Further Evacuation on the TQ Surgical Pad

That night I did not sleep well, the images of the wounded Marines were burned into my mind; I could see their faces, their wounds and their tattoos.  I prayed the office of Compline from the Book of Common Prayer using Psalm 91 and the prayer “Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.” I took some comfort in this, walked out again into the night to see illumination rounds in the vicinity of Habbinyah and the distant sound of automatic weapons fire.   For once my insomnia was not related to jet lag or exhausting night flights, it was instead a realization that what happened to these Marines could well happen to me as I we launched later in the week.

The next morning another eight or ten Marines from the same company came in, this time I went to the SSTP with Jose and we did a tag team match, we tried to determine religious affiliation of the wounded Marines with him taking the Roman Catholics to provide sacramental needs and me taking the rest.  Once again the images were vivid; these Marines were on a mission to recover the damaged vehicles and were hit by IEDs on their way back to base.  This time one Marine was killed.  I walked to the graves registration and mortuary affairs team with the battalion surgeon and a corpsman who were to identify the body.  I listened to their frustration and heartache as they described what they had been through the past two days.  The company had taken over 20 casualties including 3 dead.  A high percentage of casualties for a unit that probably numbered about 120 men.  Once again I walked back, this time in the hot mid-morning sun with Jose to the Chapel.  We talked for a while about the past two days, he knew the battalion that had been hit well as he supported them as well.  The surgeon was one of his parishioners.  After we went our separate ways I did my morning prayer and settled in to study more about where we were going.  Nelson and I got PT later in the evening and I spent a restless night in my “can” playing computer Maj-Jong and Chess on my laptop deep into the morning.  Once again I spent time walking in the dark looking at the vast sea of stars above me.

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Tom Watson: Gentleman, Champion and Supporter of the Troops

Tom Watson and Me

Shaking the Hand of Legendary Golfer and True Champion Tom Watson at Al Taqaddum Iraq 24 Nov 2007

My dad was a golfer.  He began golfing as he was in his last few years in the Navy.  Before he started golfing he was constantly watching it on TV when no baseball was on.  When he retired he began golfing in earnest.  It remained a lifelong passion of his even after he contracted Alzheimer’s disease.  He developed as a golfer and by his early 50’s had developed a decent handicap.  He also would help out as a volunteer at major tournaments at Pebble Beach.   Dad loved golf, but as with everything in his life he took it very seriously.  Sometimes when I visited home on leave dad would take me golfing and let me use his old clubs.  Well, since I would golf once every three to five years I would not do very well.  Before long he would be preaching at me and berating me because he said I had natural talent to hit the ball well and was wasting it.  Those were always interesting outings, as my brother Jeff can testify to himself.

Anyway, back in the 1970s when I was still living at home dad would frequently watch golf on TV.  One of his favorite players was Tom Watson.  Back in those days because of dad I was familiar with almost every major figure in the sport.  However they were not the same to me as like baseball players.  Baseball was more of my sport, though I did and still do appreciate golf and now that my shoulder is getting healed up from the beating it took in Iraq I am going to be getting out on the course on a much more frequent basis once the Minor League Baseball season is over.  The last time I was out in California my brother told me the same thing that my dad did about my ability to hit them ball.  I trust Jeff as he is a very good golfer and had coached golf at the high school level.  I think I am even more attuned to what I’m doing on the golf course because of Iraq and my PTSD.  I am much more in tune with what my body is doing at any given point of time.  I can now feel when a shoulder dips or I pull up on a shot as well as a number of other things that I never noticed before when I would go out on the course.

Because of dad I have retained a latent interest in golf.  So when I heard that Tom Watson was in the lead at the British Open while listening to my local ESPN Sports Radio 1310 on the way home from having the Undead Tooth of Terror extracted my ears perked up.  I had met Tom as well as a number of other golf legends in between missions at Al Taqaddum Air Base which was my home away from home while deployed to Iraq.  Tom and several others came through on a tour.  Now celebrities would make the rounds of Iraq and Afghanistan and I am grateful for them coming to visit, especially when things were not going well and a lot of guys were still getting killed and wounded.  Many times I was out in the far reaches when people would come through so I didn’t see many of them.  My friend Father Jose Bautista-Rojas was an escort for some dignitaries who accompanied the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen on his tour which included Lance Armstrong and Robin Williams.  Jose got to spend some time with them and got me baseball hat signed by both.  He said that Robin said that “I had better be praying for him.”  I thought that was both funny and kind.  I did meet Chuck Norris when he made his 2007 trip through Al Anbar visiting Marines.  He shook about every person’s hand and had pictures taken with them and he didn’t just go to the big bases, but some of the little remote places that I went. I would have liked to meet Robin. I have heard from a number of folks that he is great to military folks.  One thing that I noticed about the celebrities that came out, no matter who they were or what their politics, they were generally very friendly and seemed to care.  Celebrities take a lot of knocks for many reasons, some justified and others not, but when they come out to a combat zone it is appreciated.  I remember my dad talking about the Bob Hope tour that came to his ship off of Vietnam which included Sammy Davis Junior and Charro.

Anyway, I met Tom at Al Taqaddum in between mission’s right after Thanksgiving on November 24th 2007.  He and his group comprised of him David Feherty, Butch Harmon, Joe Inman, Tom Lehman and Howard Twitty were some of the finest and kindest men I have ever met while deployed.  These men took time with every Marine, Soldier and Sailor who came to see them.  They not only signed items but they gave away more things to our folks than I have seen given anywhere.  I received a hat signed by Tom and the others from the Rider Cup Team, and a picture signed by all, personalized to me.  That was really cool.  While talking with Tom I told him about my dad and his condition as well as my brother.  I asked if it would be possible to get something signed for them.  Tom got with the other guys and had a hat signed for my brother and each of the golfers inscribed a person message to my dad on the pictures.  They all expressed their well wishes to him and prayers for his health.  I was really touched by what gentlemen all of these men were.

I watched the last part of the British Open today pulling for Tom, but unfortunately he lost in the playoff to Stewart Cink after making bogey on 18. The golf miracle story ended with Tom finishing in second place, but even still he was not expected to do what he did even a week ago.  I really felt bad for him as he stood with tears in his eyes.  Despite the fact that he finished second Tom Watson to me is a gentleman, sportsman, a supporter of us who serve in unpopular wars, a man of compassion and a true Champion.  God bless you Tom and thank you for what you did for my dad while I was in Iraq.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under alzheimer's disease, celebrities, golf, iraq,afghanistan