Monday, February 20, 2006

15 Minutes of Fame on Tuesday

We departed Kuwait in the early hours of Wednesday, the 15th. A convoy of comfortable buses transported us from Camp Victory to the jumping off point for the chartered flight that would wing us home. There were the usual hurry up and wait moments, but spirits were high and the delays taken in stride. Our aircraft was a wide body civilian jet, and I had my first taste of being an officer; I got a seat in first-class.....NICE! Among the officers and senior NCOs sitting in luxury was a private first class. One of the gunnery sergeants orchestrating the seating went to the main cabin and asked for a volunteer. Initially no one responded, but a lowly PFC raised his hand and was rewarded with the last open seat in first-class.

Once airborne we learned that there would be a brief lay-over in Shannon, Ireland. My great-grandfather came over from the Emerald Isle in 1892, and the joy of heading home was heightened all the more by the realization that I would being setting foot for the first time on mother soil. We flew into Shannon before sunrise. As we descended beneath the clouds far below a lighthouse's rotating beacon fanning out across the ocean caught my eye and I felt my heart, in the words of James Joyce, "softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves".

The last couple days, courtesy of jet lag, have been a bit of a blur. Come this Wednesday our post-deployment processing will be completed and myself and travel companion, LtCol Craig Covert, a Marine Corps historian, will be returning to Quantico. My family has a welcome home party planned on the 25th for my nephew Joey and myself in our hometown in Pennsylvania. Joey, a 1st lieutenant with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, returned from Iraq back the end of January. As you can imagine, there is a great extended family of kith and kin breathing a collective sigh of relief.

On Friday Mike Phillips, the Wall Street Journal reporter I traveled with, informed me that an article he penned about yours truly is going to appear on the WSJ's page B-1 on Tuesday. So, I've got 15 minutes of fame to look forward to.

Here are the final pieces I produced in Iraq. I find myself already missing the exhausted resolute faces of fellow Marines, the scenes of commraderie and the rows of humble HESCO barrier encased tents.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Don't Sell the Farm Ray

We're out of Iraq and spending a few days de-compressing in a large transient tent city in Kuwait called Camp Victory before making the final leg of the journey stateside. Our arrival was in the wee hours of the morning and we we're greeted by comfortable buses. The stacks of seabags and backpacks were trucked right to the front of our hooch. We only had to drag them thankfully a few yards to our racks, dig out sleeping bags and collapse. Our flack jackets are now packed away and ammunition turned back in.

I'm writing this in a cozy, and I do mean cozy, internet cafe at the "Paradise Sands" USO center. This large otherwise non-descript building is awash in peaceful atmospheric lighting and comfy IKEA furnishings. If you've ever been in an IKEA store then you've probably seen a glass case with a pneumatic contraption making a kaa-shish sound over and over again flexing their signature easy-chair. Well there are lines of those chairs facing a couple big screen TVs. In the center of this cavernous space are piles of overstuffed pillows piled on top of matching sofa size cushions. I can hear the sound of dice rattling around in a cup coming out from a huddle of Marines playing a game of Phase 10. Along the perimeter are groupings of low over-stuffed sofas worthy of an episode of "Friends". Overhead are hanging playful Alexander Caulder mobiles gently turning in the air. You have to take your combat boots off when first entering and folks are padding about the carpeted floor in stocking feet. I feel like I'm back in kindergarten. God Bless the USO...this place feels a little like a mythic place that's on all our minds...HOME.

Those of you who've been gracious enough to follow my journey can probably guess my politics. I've tried to stay off of that soap box. If you ever read Victor Davis Hanson you'll get a pretty good idea where I stand. When 9/11 happened I was a card carrying dyed in the wool liberal registered Democrat. The religion stamped on my dogtags was Unitarian. Progressive ideas and thinking still inform alot of my core values. So, in many ways I, like alot of you, resist being labeled. But unlike alot of you and many very liberal friends, I have had the benefit being out here on the front lines in the War on Terrorism. I'm like the brother-in-law of Ray Kinsella in the movie "Field of Dreams" who, when finally seeing the ball players, speaks out of his epiphany those immortal words, "don't sell the farm Ray". This is a good fight. It is worth our blood and treasure. Let's not sell the farm just yet.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Two For the Road

*Click on images to enlarge

All good things must come to an end. This sojourn to Iraq is quickly drawing to a close and Friday night I'll start my return trip to the land of the big PX. For a final time an ASR number will be scrawled on the back of my left hand. In the darkness one last "seabag drag", weighted down with ALL my gear, into the back of a waiting helo. The dark expanse of Iraq will glide below us. Into memory will fade golden fragments of light spilling out from windows and doorways of Iraqi homes. A strand of silvery beads coiling across the landscape marking the midnight path of a coalition convoy will disappear like a wisp of smoke. I suspect I'll feel both drawn home and wanting to stay. I wonder if there is word for this, a word like bittersweet; a word that captures the tension of opposites. I've just lived five months in a world populated by real men and women engaged in what the philosopher and historian Victor Davis Hanson calls "muscular idealism". Individuals who know what Stanley Crawford, the author of A Garlic Testament meant by the "pound weight of the real at ground level". Something in me is wary of the unreality that awaits me back home. I will walk the streets of my beautiful little Virgina river town in the quiet of an early spring evening to my favorite coffee shop unarmed. There won't be the staccato sound of distant gunfire, or the deafening crack of a cannon followed by the sound of an artillery round splitting the air with the intensity of a raging locomotive. I'll make a visit to the mall to replace my scratched up spectacles and have no urgent concerns about the crowds of civilians or the cars and pick-up trucks driving where ever they like. In the mall and at the coffee shop there will be conversations about who said what to who, plans for the weekend, job prospects, complaints about the boss and a plethora of subjects that I fear will strike me as inconsequential and banal. Will I jump at the sound of a car backfiring or a door slamming? Will I have to suppress the urge to tell some twenty-something-college student with his hat on sideways smoking a clove cigarette to please stop whinning about Econ 101? Will I hear the far keening of the pipes? I imagine I will.

Here are two artworks for the road. A nameless Marine taking a knee looks out across the broad expanse of Iraq. The buffer zone between every single one of us and the terrorists starts about two hundred yards in front of him. The terrorist knows what a good shot he is and keeps a wary distance. But more than that, they know this young American, barely out of high school, given the chance, will kill him at any distance surely as God made little green apples. They know they are up against the greatest warriors on the planet. These are the civilized world's name takers and heartbreakers. Somewhere this kid from your hometown learned to love his country and his brother Marines more than himself. Somehow this kid from your son's 2nd grade class decided to act on the belief that there are some things bigger than ones self, ideas that both require and are worthy of his blood and treasure. This young man from down the street who delivered your morning paper and had a crush on your daughter knows who he's willing to die for, YOU. Three I knew did just that, LCpl Deeds of Mississippi, Cpl Rogers of Oklahoma and Lt McGlothlin of Virginia. Their blood, their last full measure is now mixed forever with the soil of Iraq. They lived and breathed a life where words like courage, honor and country were not strangers in town. The other is a portrait of Lance Corporal Lucas Turchich. It's based on a photo I took of him during a fifteen minute pause sandwiched between assaults in Husayba, Iraq. This is one of the "rough men" willing to do violence on your behalf. Sleep well. He's out there on watch tonight.

I'll be making more posts in the near future. After a couple weeks of leave with my daughter it'll be into the studio and the creation of finished watercolors and paintings. There is also a whole series of photo "abstractions" that I plan on posting. Iraq was visually rich in wonderfully textured and distressed surfaces and objects. Thanks to all of you who've visited me over the past five months. Semper Fi.

You can have your Army khakis, you can have your Navy blues
But I’ve a different fighting man to introduce to you
His uniform is different than any you’ve ever seen
The Germans called us devildogs, our real name is Marine

We were born on Parris Island, the land that God forgot
The sand was 18 inches deep, the sun was blazing hot
We get up every morning way before the sun
And run a hundred miles or more before the day is done

Over a million have come and gone who’ve called themselves Marine
We live by the motto “Semper fi”, let me tell you what it means
Always faithful to our nation, and faithful to the Lord
But first of all we’re faithful to our comrades in the Corps

We died on the beach at Guadalcanal and we died in Vietnam
We died in the mud at Belleau Wood and we died in Lebanon
And when we got to heaven Saint Peter we did tell
Another Marine reporting sir, I’ve served my time in hell

*Traditional marching chant from Marine Corps Boot Camp

The Things They Live By

I've included a link below to a site where there's a music video called "On My Watch Tonight". It's written and performed by a Marine, Mike Corrado. I hope you check it out. Oh, and have box of tissues handy.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

By the Twos

*Click on images to enlarge

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.

M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks, Old Ubaydi

Corporal Koppes' Patrol, Ubaydi

Sniper Team Gearing Up

Stretcher Bearers

Filling Sandbags

Sergeant Ryan S. Becze USMC

LCpl Collin G. Neier USMC

Pat Dollard, Neo-con Gonzo Documentarian

Michael Phillips, The Wall Street Journal

Là á Bhlà ir's math na Cà irdean
Friends are good in the day of battle
(On the memorial stone of the 51st Highland Division at St Valery)

Marines, hardy individualists all, don't do anything solo when outside the wire. Every NCO or officer briefing a patrol or convoy peppers their instructions with two phrases, two non-negotiable operational concepts; battle buddies and guardian angels. The principle is simple, together we survive, alone we die. Whether filling sandbags, assigned the odious task of burning human waste, bearing a stretcher, patrolling or going out to snipe, you never go it alone, EVER. Today's photos and artwork are illustrative of this.

The two individuals whose photographs appear today, Michael Phillips of The Wall Street Journal and Hollywood documentary film maker Pat Dollard, were my battle buddies while at Ar Ramadi's Observation Post Horea. These two gentlemen, though fundamentally different creatively and politically, have fearlessly shared the common lot of the Marines here in Iraq. Mike was here on his fourth visit and Pat his third. Mike, a seasoned photo-journalist, works diligently to maintain the aloof impartiality of a judge even while enduring all the dangers and hardships faced by the Marines he covers. In addition to dispatches appearing regularly in The Wall Street Journal, he's also written a book entitled The Gift of Valor: A War Story. Lest one thinks his prose is limited to arid reporting, his reviewers assure us that this book displays the hand of a sensitive and evocative wordsmith. This intimate account of the life and heroic death of Medal of Honor nominee Corporal Jason Dunham leaves only the most hardened unmoved and dry eyed. Although he dons all the necessary protective combat gear, his fleece pullover and blue jeans leave no doubt that he's a non-combatant. On the back of his flack jacket is a large strip of duck tape with bold indelible ink letters spelling out PRESS. I asked him why he didn't have the same word in Arabic, and without blinking an eye responded, "it's there for the Marines, not the insurgents". The war in Iraq has been deadlier for members of the fourth estate than any other conflict. Pat Dollard, on the other hand, is a wild eyed zealot freshly descended from the mountain living on locusts and honey. He has found his long lost tribe, the Marines, and he's gone unapologetically native. A former Hollywood talent agent and producer, he's now living out a Hunter S. Thompsonesque complete immersion into the Heart of Darkness I now see the light who are these incredible human beings called Marines experience. Other than a usually unshaved mug, lack of rank insignia and weapon, he is indistinguishable from the jarheads he follows everywhere with camera shouldered and jaunty cigarette dangling from his lip. But don't let this description lead you to believe that Dollard is not the genuine article or that he's going off half-cocked with nary a plan. This is an articulate film maker on a mission. There is method in his madness and hopefully in the very near future the fruits of his labor will grace our television screens. Being with these two was enlightening, enriching and just plain fun.

The two individual portrait drawings show a duo best described as a pair of modern day Gunga Dins. Sergeant Becze and Lance Corporal Neier, assigned to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, together spent their days and nights during Operation River Gate in Haditha running food, water and ammunition to Marines out on the front lines. Time after time they left the relative safety of a firm base in an open back HUMVEE packed with essentials and navigated their way to isolated units through battle scarred alleyways. Often they returned with a load of enemy prisoners of war(EPWs)in their care. These guys, in danger coming and going, performed with a smile and the confidence that only comes from knowing that a buddy is always covering your six.

Finally, I give you a pair of inanimate objects; two M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks as they move into position in support of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment on the evening of November 15, 2005 in Old Ubaydi, Iraq. On the following day these behemoths would come dashing to the rescue of a pinned down unit, and become more than mere machines to the besieged 3rd Squad, 2nd Platoon of Fox Company. Each of these tanks has a team of four Marines on foot providing external security, and on the morning of November 16th one of these escorts, in desperate hand-to-hand fighting, probably earned a Navy Cross. Insurgents were throwing hand grenades from the roof of a hotly contested house, and Corporal A (I'll leave him anonymous until the award is approved and presented), down and seriously wounded in both legs, picked up a grenade and tried to toss it back inside. Unfortunately it detonated before he could get it completely inside amputating his right hand, but his selfless act of courage prevented anyone else from being killed or wounded.