Yes, you guessed it folks: we’re in the midst of another glorious eternal sandstorm (on day three, to be precise). The little bastard just won’t go away. It dies down during the night, the dust settles, and you wake up in the morning and look outside thinking, “Hey, maybe today won’t be quite so bad as yesterday”. Well you’re wrong, there, devil dog: today will be as bad as yesterday. In fact, it will be worse, since the wind has been blowing for so long that it’s scoured off the surface layers of all the garbage-burning pits throughout the AO, drilled down to the stuff that’s been festering since the invasion in ’03, and rendered it aerosol for everyone’s lungs to enjoy. I’ll admit, I’m getting pretty tired of sticking Q-tips in my ears and digging out wads of Iraqi desert.
Of course, the other bad thing about this shamal – apart from its long-term health impacts – is the fact that we haven’t been flying. I’ll have to check the records, but I think that I actually flew our last logged mission before all this crap rolled in. It was a pretty good mission too: we’d been doing some area familiarization missions with Army Chinooks that rolled in here, and it was a unique opportunity to work with both a different airframe and service. It’s funny: our community frequently considers other Marine rotary wing platforms to be a different species, and here we were, flying mixed sections with the (gulp) Army. Hooah. There were some differences we had to work out, like basic terminology, specific aircraft capabilities, and radio procedures (sidebar: I didn’t think it possible to find a military aircraft with even less advanced radios than our own, but these poor guys have them), but once we got that all squared away we had a couple of good days just bombing around the AO, showing them the theater. And it wasn’t like these guys were all new kids on the block: they have some pretty junior pilots, but their most senior flyers have more hours than virtually our whole roster combined. This was something I probably should’ve been more aware of on this last mission. I was leading the mixed section and we had some degraded visibility back home (due to the winds picking up all the sand that’s been with us ever since), but it hadn’t yet deteriorated to the point where I felt it was unsafe to try and fly back. So we launched with the intention of turning around if it was worse than forecast, and while there were a couple of points where I started entertaining the notion, we were able to make it back home by hugging mother earth and picking our way through the clear spots as we’re trained to do. Anyway, throughout this evolution I was calling our Army dash two every few minutes to let him know what my intentions were and why I was turning this way or that. Had the other pilots been folks with my moderate level of experience, or more junior aircraft commanders, this would have been necessary so that they’d know what my plan was and that my course and altitude deviations weren’t the result of vertigo. But these Army guys were flying helicopters back when I was learning to walk, so they were somewhat less concerned about what my plan was than I was. They followed me back home through the dust with no problems, and we landed and shut down like rock stars as the dirt rolled in behind us.
So that’s been the most exciting part of my week. It’s all been downhill from there, with the sandstorm and a cold that accompanied my return from the picking-up-retarded-passengers flight. It’s been busy here on the ground too, trying to plan and re-plan our weekly flight schedule as the weather rolls in and destroys it day by day. My free time has dropped off substantially, though I’ve been able to finish Bernard Cornwell’s “Azincourt” (a fun book with plenty of blood, guts, and guys in armor) and Michael Yon’s “Moment of Truth in Iraq” (a little narrower in scope than, say, Cobra II, as he embeds and spends lengthy amount of times with the units he describes; but he still visits every battlefront across the country and tells many stories of heroism (us) and brutality (them) which escaped attention by the MSM. You are amazed by the adaptability of infantry commanders who play the role of warrior, politician, mayor, and police chief a thousand different times in the same day; at the determination of our leaders to regain the moral high ground lost by a few soldiers at Abu Ghraib, usually at great risk to themselves and their troops; at the barbarism of AQI’s tactics, against both Americans and Iraqis. A particularly sickening chapter describes what American and Iraqi troops uncovered as they pushed north into the Diyala province north of Baghdad: masses graves of parents buried with children, men mutilated by having their ‘smoking fingers’ cut off as part of AQI’s religious zeal, and local leaders served the baked remains of their own sons in an effort to intimidate them. This should be required reading for anyone who thinks there’s some moral equivalence between AQI’s actions and our own). I also finished watching the excellent HBO mini-series “John Adams”, which I started on last year’s deployment but never finished since our morale network drive only had the first three episodes. Well, I watched the rest. More than once, it reminded me how blessed this nation was in its leaders as it faced the challenges of independence; and saddened me in how empty and shallow Beltway leadership has become.
One last observation from the last few days: I don’t know if it’s because the weather has sucked and people have nowhere else to be, but I’ve noticed a much larger number of contractors on the base in general (and in my chow hall in particular). This has gnawed at me to no end, since I’m perturbed in thinking that we’re slowly contracting out every minor function the military used to do. Coincidentally enough, however, reading “Azincourt” at about the same time reminded me that, for virtually all of history, traveling armies brought with them any number of ‘contractor’-type civilians, from blacksmiths and armorers to maintain soldiers’ weapons, to pages that dressed and fed men before battle, to wives and ‘camp followers’ that took care of the troops’, um, morale. It still chaps my ass, but it’s a fact of history, from the Trojan War to our computerized battlespace.
Wow. The weather is progressing better than forecast. Maybe we’ll get to fly someday after all. I doubt it though; I bet that dust is just over the horizon, waiting, waiting . . .