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Life Behind the T-Walls (p.1)

Whenever I am asked what it was like in Iraq, all I can answer is, "It was hot!". Truth is, the question itself feels unanswerable. My brain flips through the multitude of things we did, places we went, and people we met, trying to figure out a way to convey that all in a 30 second elevator speech. It shorts out, and I can offer only a generic answer that isn't even accurate year-round (it snowed a couple months after we got there, and none of us had bothered to pack a jacket - probably because people like me who can only manage "It was hot!"). But starting with some living conditions, I can try.

I lived on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) called Camp Victory. In military terms, we were "Fobbits", a somewhat derogatory descriptor for those that may go on convoys and missions but primarily stay "behind the wire". The FOB certainly had its dangers, but our daily life was more like The Office rather than the Saving Private Ryan scenes you might imagine. For example, soldiers out in the field might not be able to count on a hot meal, yet we had a gigantic chow hall with a grill, salad bar, fruit station, and multiple buffet lines. And although we suffered having only 6 of Baskin Robbins famous 31 flavors, there was always a gigantic rack of strawberry shortcakes and cheesecakes and cookies to pick from for dessert. When the made-to-order omelettes and taco bars and "meat"ball surprises didn't sound appetizing, we had multiple American fast food chains to choose from as well. Okay, so the meat at Taco Bell tasted like the dirty water in the bottom of the tub after doing a large load of unrinsed dishes, and the glaze on the Cinnabun rolls were always dotted with fly carcasses you had to pick out before eating, and you could watch the workers at Subway take the meat out of unfinished sandwiches and use it for new subs. But the Pizza Hut produced the best chain pizza I've ever had.

Camp Victory was a compound of beige palaces that looked like really boring sand castles. The jewel at the center of the complex was Saddam's Al-Faw palace, housing his golden throne with its lion head arm rests. It sat in the middle of a beautiful man made lake. The lake was said to be dug out by hand and the murky, pewter-colored water was tanked in from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Legend had it that we used to dredge the lakes when we first took over the palace, but we found so many dead bodies and unexploded ordinance every time we swept the basin that it became too dangerous to continue. Especially when the sun rose or set, the lake was beautiful, and would have looked perfect if there was some grass. Willows grew in the canal tendrils snaking out from the lake, but grass couldn't seem to take root. There was only concrete and sand. When it rained, there was only concrete and mud. And the mud got tracked in wherever you went for weeks. On rainy days, you'd have to sweep every couple hours or the floors would be covered with large nuggets of dried mud. The contractors spread pea pebbles on all the walkways to give us pathways we wouldn't sink into like quick sand, but some type of weed or netting would have been preferable. When it wasn't wet, the sand was more like dust: soft and refined. It got into our pores and dried out our skin. It coated our clothes and stuck to our boots. And when you drank water, it was through a filter of caked on sand that coated the rim of the bottle.

About a mile away up a slight hill sat another lake surrounded by its own shroud of folklore. Lost Lake was said to have earned its name when the national soccer team lost an important game and the whole team was lined up on its shore and executed one by one. Now bombed piles of rubble, the two smaller palazzos floating in the lake were once were home to Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay. Sprawling between these two lakes was our neighborhood.

The military always has fancy names for everything. Velcro is hook and loop tape. Red Hots are imperial cinnamon discs. And the shipping containers we Fobbits lived in were called Containerized Housing Units, or "CHUs". Thousands of shipping containers were laid out in hundreds of rows, each completely walled in by looming concrete barriers called T-Walls that protected us from incoming mortars. The T-walls amplified even the smallest sounds, so that the crunch of your footsteps on the pebbles sounded like someone was following you. Inside the concrete jungle it was impossible to tell from which direction sounds were coming from, or what was making the sounds in the first place (nothing in life has made me wish I had a penis more than going to the bathroom after dark in Iraq - the walk was so spooky that I wish I could jut pee on the T-walls like most of my neighbors did). Six of us were crammed into three tiny rooms within each shipping container. The walls of the shipping container were lined in 1970's wood paneling to give it a homey feel, and we each had a twin sized bunk and wall locker for our stuff. No matter what we did, the CHUs smelled awful. Everything was coated in burn barrel fumes, the acidic aroma of burning tires, and stale cigarette odors from the KBR contractors who seemed to love smoking in our rooms while we were at work. We couldn't really complain, as our CHUs were much more comfortable than sleeping in Humvees or on stone floors like the troops outside the wire had to. Plus we had two things they could only daydream about: air conditioning and hot showers. Well, sometimes the water was hot.

Honestly, as a female, taking a shower felt a lot safer when the water was cold. Each CHU village was surrounded by main artery paths that made it easier to get to places like the chow hall or the office. The shower and bathroom trailers dashed along the center of those walkways like a center divide on the freeway. There were no locks on the doors, and half of the shower stalls didn't have working curtains, but the real issue was the heat. The hot water steamed up the small trailer quickly, turning it into a sauna before you even got in. The heat befuddled your brain and filled your lungs with cotton, and it felt as though you were taking a bath in a sea of panic. Since there was no way to change the temperature of the water (you get what you get and you don't throw a fit), the only way to mitigate the overwhelming heat was to prop the door open to let the steam escape. If the water was cold, it was easy enough to enter the trailer in stealth mode and feel relatively safe. But the open door was like a homing beacon, a bat signal, letting everyone who saw it know that there was a naked (unarmed) female in there. I, myself, was lucky enough to avoid sexual assault in the showers, but after being joined in the shower trailer by a large Ugandan contractor who wanted to enjoy the show, I started bringing a neighbor with me to stand guard. Not that the showers were really effective, though. We showered two or three times a day, depending on when we were able to work out. But the minute I got back outside I was immediately sweaty again and caked with moon dust and felt like I needed another shower. The air was often heavy with sand, so I'd keep my wet hair in a bun to prevent it from turning to mud, but with no opportunity to dry between showers it started growing mold instead.

Mostly Iraq just felt lonely. I was surrounded by tens of thousands of other soldiers, and yet felt completely, utterly, devastatingly alone. We were separated by military unit, rank, missions, office politics, and a multitude of other things. Like Snow White, my main companions were the woodland creatures. Or desert creatures, as it were. The crows even protected me from the rabid jackals in the early mornings on my walks to work.

The other birds made you feel like you had awoken in another dimension, though. A multiverse where they all looked extraordinarily similar to the birdies you saw at home, but acted wildly different. The doves, for example, did not coo peacefully. They squawked loudly and crassly. And the pigeons who seem so street smart back home didn't fly away when the convoys approached them. They simply sat in the middle of the street and let the Humvees drive over them, ruffling their feathers in the wind. And the swallows didn't seem to know how to land without crash landing, but I probably couldn't do much better. Even the geese were friendly in this otherworldly dimension. I fed the birds twice a day with food I snuck out of the chow hall or unsalted nuts if they showed up in care packages.

We had a small stream behind our office that snaked out of Lost Lake, and in it lived a special type of bass that didn't exist anywhere else but in those man-made lakes and a bunch of turtles. I loved feeding the turtles but it took me weeks to figure out how. At first I brought them everything I thought a turtle would love eating like tomatoes and lettuce and melons and berries. But every day I'd just watch the produce sink to the bottom, uneaten. Then one morning I accidentally dropped half a pop tart, and that drew them in. Turned out these turtles were not on a diet. They really loved pancakes, birthday cake, bread, and basically everything except a healthy vegetable.

Aside from incoming mortars and pot-shot gunfire, life on the Fob was surprisingly pretty similar to life on an Army installation in the States. We woke up, worked extremely long hours, sustained ourselves on caffeine and sarcasm, worked out, tried to call our family, then went to bed just to do it all again the next day.

Check back (or subscribe!) for part two, which will describe our working conditions, and part three, which will discuss the elusive downtime. Or maybe boredom shenanigans. If there is any aspect of fobbit life you'd like to hear more about, let me know! I'll eventually (hopefully) write a book about my time in Iraq, but it's a couple manuscripts down the queue.


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