Meet the Neighbors
After a lot of delays, we arrived at Camp Cedar, in Southern Iraq early this morning. It was warm, today was supposed to be spent resting, cleaning equipment and preparing for the push up north, to Baghdad. That was until I met Sgt. Glass, a former Marine and current member of the 116th National Guard, a.k.a. the Stonewall Brigade.
Within an hour, I was in a humvee and on patrol in the dirt roads surrounding the base. Camp Cedar is within view of Tallil, an airbase in name alone as Saddam could not put planes into the sky after the Persian Gulf War. In 2003, the base acquired a new landlord and with ancient migrating fellahin Bedouins farming the land that is believed to have been the location of the biblical Eden, the new owners want to know who exactly who the neighbors are.
Staff Sergeant Varisco of Virginia is tasked with getting to know the local population. The Staff Sgt is a high school teacher when he's not serving in the Guard, so he knows how to gauge the responses to questions like, "How long will you be in the area?" and "Do you have any weapons?"
The base has a new policy, and it's Varisco's job to meet and greet. These peoples cannot tell you how long they have been in the area, only that their parents and grand-parents and their grand-parents have been there too.
This man had two wives and wanted to farm more land so that he could acquire a third. Many of the Bedouins refer to the Americans as the "Rich uncle," and like much distant family, they never have a problem asking for something--anything. Almost all of the Bedouins wanted some type of pain-killer, especially aspirin.
We didn't have any medicine for the future groom, but we did have Girl Scout cookies. People from back home send over these kinds of goodies and it's exactly the type of gift that can protect lives far more than the heavy body armor we were wearing. The aspiring groom invited us in for tea, but we just didn't have the time. There were many neighbors in the area.
This was a friendly visit, but security is always a concern. While we were off base we heard mortar fire. Someone was lobbing shells at Tallil Air Base, just down the road. We were off.
We drove around looking for possible suspects. Most Iraqis know they have to pull over to the side of the road if when a military patrol passes by. This is to prevent the presence of vbeds, drivers who attempt to blow themselves up in what has to redefine the current definition of road rage.
We went up and down long roads and I couldn't help but think that I wouldn't have been able to pick Sgt. Stanley out of a crowd, but I sure got recognize the back of his helmet.
Five people in full body armor the gunner has the most room. The only trade off is less security, and I don't think he can feel the air-conditioning as much as we could--not that it mattered much in our vehicle.
The head scarves are an ancient garb. The different colors are a sign of age, a rite of passage. While the translator explained this all to me he touched one the headpieces--a great sign of disrespect.
"The children love pens," one of the soldiers told me. "At first I thought it was because they wanted to write, but it turns out that they like to draw on themselves."
The donkeys and dogs look emaciated, most produce is carried in the back of Nissan pick-up trucks, the same type that launch mortars at military bases.
By the end of the day, we had spoken to most of the neighbors and had a pretty good idea of who was around and near the base. One man told us a furious sheik would come by Camp Cedar gates the next day to complain about harvesting his crop. There was no doubt he would.