Sunday, August 30, 2009


The team arrived home safely last night on Northwest Flight 405. We were met by our loved ones at the airport. Even UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers and his wife Sherry Modrow showed up to welcome us back, which was really nice of the two of them. Jenny rushed to catch a flight back to Anchorage - after all of our traveling, she still had one leg to go.

We caught up with our families as we waited for our checked bags. After we had all our things, we said goodbye to one another and stepped out into the darkening Fairbanks night. A temperate 50-degree Interior night never felt so cool before.

I can only hope that every soldier with the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team has an equally happy homecoming. And I hope that the new soldiers with the 3/2 SBCT coming into Warhorse now work to help the Iraqis of Diyala Province - it's going to take a lot of work by all involved to return the area to its former prosperity.

For those curious what will happen to this blog, there's still quite a bit of material to be posted here, so I expect we'll have new stuff for you for at least a week or so. We'll probably do a couple more pieces for Alaska Dispatch too, so don't tune out quite yet.

It was an amazing month, and I hope you all enjoyed our coverage. It was an honor to be able to bring some of Diyala back home for you.

-Tom Hewitt for the UAF Iraq embed team

Friday, August 28, 2009

Deputy Dogs

Americans are familiar with working dogs. However, for the Iraqi police this is something new.

Soldiers from the 1st Stryker Brigade Canine Unit are helping Iraqi Security Forces train dogs to sniff out trouble.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Keeping the Peace

By Tom Hewitt, Photos by Jenny Canfield/UAF Journalism

COP COBRA, Iraq - On a sunny morning at Command Outpost Cobra, Lt. Col. Michael Kasales of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team was mending fences.

“This kind of cooperation doesn’t exist anywhere else in Iraq,” he told the assembled Iraqi forces at a joint security meeting. “There can be peace and understanding, or it can turn into a fight.”

On the border between Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, Kasales and the troops of his 5-1 Cavalry Regiment have their work cut out for them, trying to massage egos and build relationships between Arabs and Kurds. It’s a daunting task even under the best of circumstances, and the soldiers are dealing with an active insurgency and infrastructure projects to boot.

As the meeting wore on, the magnitude of friction between the authorities became apparent. The Iraqi army and police forces complained of poor communication between the security agencies – American, Iraqi, and Kurdish – in the region, and a lack of trust between forces was a major bone of contention. Still, Kasales urged the meeting’s attendees to continue working together, telling them, “The example you are providing here is coexistence and peace for the future of Iraq.”

Kasales has worked hard to ease tensions in his squadron’s area of operations, pushing Iraqi authorities to set up joint checkpoints and operations with the Kurdish pesh merga militia forces. The pesh merga have been successful at maintaining order and security in Kurdistan, and both the Iraqi and American governments believe that cooperation between Kurdish and Iraqi forces is key to keeping the peace, especially in the volatile disputed zone that runs diagonally through northeast Diyala Province – the 5-1 Cavalry’s backyard.

Efforts to foster cooperation between Kurds and Iraqis in security operations have been successful, but it’s still a rocky road. At the morning security meeting, Iraqi police and army representatives had arrived in force, but the pesh merga were nowhere to be seen. At the meeting’s end, word arrived that the Kurds had been hassled at the command outpost’s gate, and – feeling slighted – turned around, blowing off the meeting.

“It happens about once every three times we do this,” Kasales said after the meeting’s end. “Sometimes it’s where people are seated at the tables. Personally, I think it’s silly, and I let them have my seat if they’ll take it.”

An uncertain future

In the Kurd-dominated town of Khanaqin, Iraqi Police Col. Mahmoud was quick to suggest that Kurd-Arab tensions are overblown. “There is no difference between working with Arabs and working with Kurds. He is an Arab, and I am a Kurd,” he said, pointing to the officer at the next desk. “We work together. We trust each other.”

“He knows how we [Kurds] suffered under Saddam,” Mahmoud said of Kasales. “We will be sad to see him go.” Still, he expressed faith that the situation will not worsen when Kasales departs in September. “I do not know who will replace him,” Mahmoud said, “But I have faith in the Americans. If he is going to be like Kasales, then we will trust him and we will work with him.”

The American soldiers from COP Cobra were less hopeful. “The Kurds and Arabs play nice while we’re here,” one said outside the dining hall that evening as he smoked a cigarette, “But as soon as we’re gone, all bets are off. They’re going to go right back to fighting.”

Back at the base, Col. Kasales reflected on the meetings between the Iraqi security forces. “You get everybody together like that in one room, and they always complain and moan about something – there’s always something they’re unhappy about. But just getting them into that room, even if they’re complaining – at least they’re not out in the streets, shooting at each other.”

He acknowledged that the transition to a new American unit in the region will be delicate. “We’ve spent a lot of time establishing these relationships, and these partnerships. When the next guy comes in, we’ve got to make sure he’s up to speed.

“Because if you’re not careful, you’re right back at square one.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sheik Blames Outsiders

August 15th rockets struck just outside of FOB Warhorse, the headquarters of the 1st Stryker Brigade.

UAF Journalism’s Jessica Hoffman tagged along with the Iraqi Army and the U.S. soldiers from the 3-21 Infantry Regiment investigating the launch site.

Strykers search for source of rocket attack

FOB NORMANDY, Iraq -- Capt. Chris Hassan and Second Platoon, Charlie Company had a different mission scheduled with their Iraqi Army partners. Plans changed in the wake of an unsuccessful rocket attack against American forces the previous night.

"Jesus, that's down by Warhorse," the 28-year-old Hassan spluttered as the headquarters of 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment radioed the new instructions.

Each of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team's sub-commands wields responsibility over designated portions of Dilaya Province. The rockets took off from a grove less than 10 miles from the brigade's headquarters at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, near Ba'qubah.

The platoon's home borders Muqdadiyah, roughly 90 minutes north. It might have made sense for soldiers from the closer base to respond. But Iraqis call the shots on U.S. involvement since June 30, and the IA command in Diyala Province wanted the assistance of Hassan's Strykers searching the date palm grove linked to the attack.

Local police met the combined force of Americans and Iraqis shortly after 8 a.m. in a village near the Shaki River. Hassan directed his soldiers down a narrow road, bordered with mud walls on either side, toward the grove targeted for searching. As the road emptied into a grassy field, the local sheik arrived with news.

"Guys were seen escaping when the rockets were launched," the sheik explained through a translator.

See for more

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mail Call

A few soldiers in the public affairs office gather around boxes. A care package shipment has just arrived. With excitement Joint Combat Camera member Navy Mass Communications Spc. 1st Class Kirk Worley opens the treasure trove. Inside the one-cubic foot USPS box, there are six smaller boxes. It’s like watching a kid on Christmas morning. The contents of each box spills onto his desk. Pulling the last package out, Worley says with a joyful tone, “This one is going to be the best one.” Each box was filled with candy, trail mix, beef jerky and a myriad of other treats. Worley organizes the snacks across his desk and lets his fellow Joint Combat Camera team member Air Force Staff Sgt. Ali Flisek choose her favorite goodies. With glee she chooses mini SweetTarts and dried mangoes. “It doesn’t matter what’s in the box. It’s just fun getting it,” said Flisek.

The Scarlet Macaw Community Arts Center in Sawyer, Michigan sent this particular package.

~Jessica Hoffman

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Training in a Combat Zone

War is often characterized by combat and fire power, what has often been referred out here as “kinetic” operations. But these days Alaska’s soldiers serving in Iraq are finding themselves in less aggressive, supporting roles.

To keep skills up to date, the Brigade offers its soldiers training in the warzone.

~Jessica Hoffman

New Posts At Alaska Dispatch

Balancing rockets and recreation
by Brian O'Donoghue

Once known as a "black-out" base, Forward Operating Base Warhorse now sports an outdoor basketball court illuminated by spotlights all night long.

Good fences make good neighbors
by Tom Hewitt

It's easy to miss the most prominent architectural feature of Forward Operating Base Warhorse, even though it takes up far more space than any other object in the area.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

An Iraqi fishing story

The American captain from 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, was making his rounds, checking on developments in one Iraqi police lieutenant’s corner of Muqdadiyah.

Capt. Tim Walton asked the police officer about how upcoming Ramadan fasting might affect his 50-member force. Walton wanted to know who made the call pulling police from many of the highway checkpoints. He and the Iraqi discussed the progress of local trials involving suspected terrorists.

The police lieutenant’s description of a recent arrest jogged the Fort Wainwright soldier’s memory. “Last October, we stopped that same guy with his big pole in the water,” Walton recalled.

Read more

Friday, August 21, 2009


By Tom Hewitt/UAF Journalism

Last week, Sgt. Melvin Lamb of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade walked into his classroom with an unenviable task: He had to teach a group of Iraqi Army soldiers, many of whom had never picked up a wrench, how to maintain and repair their vehicles. It wasn’t the responsibility that was onerous, it was the time frame.

He had to do it in 14 days.

“Trying to teach them everything in two weeks – yeah, that’s a crash course,” Lamb said, standing in the oversized container unit that serves as his mechanic’s school. “Some of them do have experience, but the bulk of what I get are drivers.”

With such a short time to teach the Iraqis, the American instructors have to focus on the high points – the vehicles’ major systems and sources of the most common problems. Although Lamb wishes he could teach a longer class, he knows it’s not realistic. “It would be better if they could embed with us for a year,” he said, “But their government can’t afford it.”

In fact, the Iraqi government has difficulty letting its soldiers attend the class at all, even in its two-week form. For the men who enroll, the class is treated like leave, and though there is air conditioning in the classroom, it’s hardly a vacation. Lamb and his fellow instructors teach HMMV maintenance, and though the Iraqi Army soldiers are eager, they often have a lot to learn.

“The main focus is trying to get them to use manuals,” Lamb said, adding that the Americans had their hands full translating the English-language HMMV manuals, already difficult for many U.S. soldiers to understand, into Arabic.

Despite their reluctance to crack books for answers, the Iraqi soldiers showed initiative in other areas. “They’re very intuitive,” Lamb said. “When something goes wrong, they’ll look all over for obvious problems.”

Without at least some instruction, however, the Iraqis’ eagerness can go to waste. “The first day of class, something was wrong with the HMMV, and it wouldn’t start,” Lamb said. “It took them two hours to figure out that it was in drive.”

Outside the classroom, Lamb’s Iraqi Army pupils sat at a picnic table, chatting and wearing refitted U.S. Army uniforms from previous conflicts. Kosovo, Somalia, Desert Storm, and even Vietnam were represented.

The HMMV maintenance class was valuable, they said, and they had learned a great deal. They expressed some frustration with having to use the manuals, but said they trusted Lamb and took him at his word that doing things by the book was worth their while. They had been working on the vehicles all morning, but as the heat of the day approached, they were taking a break before going inside for the four-hour classroom portion of the day’s lesson.

The short time frame made the class seem more like triage than a full-fledged maintenance program, but Lamb remained optimistic. “99 percent of the guys that go through this class are greatly improved by the end.”

As the Iraqi Army soldiers filed into the classroom to resume their studies, Lamb made light of his task. “This is actually a lot less intricate than regular car repair,” he said. “You know how you’ve got about 50 or 60 sensors in your car at home? Well, these HMMVs have four.”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

132.8 Degrees Fahrenheit

Today was the hottest Forward Operating Base Warhorse has experienced this year. The thermometer at the Public Affairs office, our base of operations, pegged the maximum temperature at 132.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Needless to say, nobody here - not even the soldiers - had experienced heat that severe before.

You may be wondering what it feels like to be outside at that temperature. The answer, as best I can approximate it, is that it feels as though you're inside a sauna that doesn't have any walls. The heat pushes its way into everything - your clothes, the water you're carrying, your body armor, the vehicles (which get too hot to touch without gloves)... everything. There's no escape.

It also really makes you understand why it's not a good idea to enter a sauna fully clothed, with body armor and a helmet to boot.

Still, there are ways to deal, and the funny thing is that it's not entirely unlike the way we deal with extreme cold in Alaska. Stay hydrated, dress appropriately, don't go outside unless you have to, and monitor your core temperature very closely. The soldiers of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade have learned these lessons well themselves - every vehicle going outside the wire has a cooler stocked with ice water and Gatorade for those riding inside.

When we get back to Alaska, it's going to be below freezing at night. It will take some getting used to for us, but even more so for the soldiers who, for the past year, have made FOB Warhorse their home.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

COP Keywest Closure & Web Coverage Update

As U.S. forces are pulling out of Iraq, American occupied bases are returning to Iraqi control. During these ceremonial hand-offs, inventory is accounted for, the conditions of the buildings are noted and agreements are signed.

UAF Journalism’s Jessica Hoffman was present for the 9th installation closure in Diyala.

As well, here's our weekly update of web coverage of our embedded journalists:

Anchorage Daily News (multiple stories from their dedicated Short Timers section):
Alaska Dispatch also has updated their dedicated section:
Additional Online Content:

Army of Sergeants

By B. O'Donoghue

“Talk to the privates,” Col. Burt Thompson said early on, encouraging us to get the full picture on life in and around Warhorse Forward Operating Base.

I have encountered a few privates on missions and other stories we’re covering as embeds with the 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. But soldiers at Beetle Bailey’s end of the pay grades don’t appear that common among Fort Wainwright’s deployed ranks.

This is confirmed by the brigade’s top NCO, Sgt. Major Gabriel Cervantes. He said it’s a natural consequence of the 1-25th’s overnight formation as a “life-cycle unit” in 2006, and the U.S. Army’s promotion process.

“When they came in, 90 percent of these soldiers were privates. Now all those soldiers who were privates three years ago are sergeants.”

Cervantes expects the brigade will see big turnover this fall as many of those newly-minted sergeants either move on to new Army posts, or elect to get out of the service.

As an established brigade, however, the 1-25th should retain more of a mix in the ranks. “You’ll always have people rotating in and out,” Cervantes said, “but there won’t be such an abundance of NCOs.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Social Media Update

We've been adding content in the form of some pictures of the team on our Facebook page.

If you're on Facebook, check it out, and become a fan! We hang out there when we have a free moment, and try to answer questions if you have any.

If you're on Twitter, Jenny and I (and some others too!) have been posting under the tag #UAFiraq - it's searchable, so you can filter for just posts that contain that tag.

If you're social-media-challenged, we're working on a gallery outside of Facebook too. I'll keep you updated.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Living On The Iraqi Frontier

By Tom Hewitt/UAF Journalism
Photos by Jennifer Canfield/UAF Journalism

COP COBRA, Iraq - “Ah yes, Cobra,” Maj. Chris Hyde said, laughing nervously and sucking air through his teeth. “It’s nice up there, really nice. But – how shall I say it – very austere.”

Austere was the right word. A lone soldier from the 1st Cavalry, 5th Squadron showed up to greet the arriving Blackhawk helicopters at the landing pad, and as he showed us to our quarters, he made no effort to hide either the plainness of Command Outpost Cobra or his affection for it.

“Sure, we don’t have a big mess hall here, or some of the other stuff they have at [Forward Operating Bases] Warhorse or Caldwell,” he said. “But I like it. We get our missions done, and it’s a little more relaxed than down at Caldwell. For one thing, there’s no Sergeant Major Greene up here.”

Soldiers at COP Cobra tended to speak of Sgt. Maj. Charles Greene, the squadron’s chief non-commissioned officer, with a mixture of mild resentment and respect. While several cited his absence as a reason they enjoy their stay at Cobra, they affectionately retold stories about Greene’s temper and his fondness for Diet Pepsi.

The soldier who greeted our helicopters wasn’t kidding about Cobra not having a big mess hall. While the dining facility at Warhorse had an overwhelming array of menu options, at Cobra there was only one choice: take it or leave it. There were no soldiers choosing the latter. Thankfully, the meal of the evening – spaghetti and meatballs with green beans and a roll – proved delicious. A nearby table held an open case of Pop-Tarts, presumably an alternative on nights when the food was less popular.

The men and women staffing COP Cobra may enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere, but they can turn it on and off like a switch. On a mission in the nearby town of Khanaqin the next day, the soldiers’ eyes darted back and forth as they walked through the half-empty market, looking down side streets and up to rooftops for harbingers of a coming attack. While Khanaqin has been calm for some time, the soldiers were visibly relieved when they finished the walk and got back into their waiting Stryker vehicles.

COP Cobra’s facilities ran from modest to extremely modest. A makeshift barbershop was set up one night in the corner of the laundry room. Only one set of electric clippers was in evidence, and a garbage bag stood in for a barber’s apron. Still, those waiting for a haircut were in good spirits, and one – equipped with an acoustic guitar – even indulged a request to play “Free Bird,” which he played flawlessly.

The only amenities on the outpost universally derided by its soldiers were the latrines. Even the bathroom at the squadron’s headquarters, widely considered the best at Cobra, only had one Western-style toilet, with the others little more than holes in the floor. In one stall, a folding chair leaned up against the wall with the seat cut out, in an effort to provide some measure of normalcy.
Despite the austerity, those stationed at Cobra find ways to import touches of luxury. The evening after the mission to Khanaqin, the squadron’s chaplain had a cookout, complete with steaks. “They won’t be the best steaks you’ve ever had,” warned Pvt. Joel Adams as we walked over to the grill, “But it’s a steak in Iraq.”

By the time the steaks were finished, the night was pitch dark. The soldiers stood outside the dining hall, smoking cigarettes and talking about home. Almost all of the soldiers were less than a month from the end of their deployment, and they held forth on the places they would go, the music they would buy, and the beer they would drink as soon as they got back to Fairbanks.

“What a night,” said Spc. Joel Adams as the cookout wound down, looking up at the night sky. “Feels almost like home.” The stars rose over the outpost, and the Big Dipper shone brightly, comforting and yet somehow out of place above the desert.

The next evening, Adams and Sgt. Christian Ozuna sat with me in the mess hall at FOB Caldwell for dinner after a convoy ride from Cobra. The two shared good-natured gripes about their housing. “We were supposed to get new housing units,” Adams said. “They talked about it for weeks and weeks, and then they gave them to 3-66 [Cavalry Regiment]. Always the way.”

“We have a mouse in our quarters, actually,” Adams continued. I volunteered that I had seen the rat poison set out in the corner of Cobra’s dining facility.

“Yeah,” Ozuna said, smiling and looking into the distance, “Those steaks last night sure were tasty, weren’t they?”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Getting The Band Back Together

It's been over a week since the team has been in the same place - Brian and Jessica headed out to Forward Operations Base Grizzly last Saturday, then Tuesday they came back to Warhorse as Jennifer and I traveled to Command Outpost Cobra to the northeast. We thought we would have a little overlap time before Brian and Jessica went back north to FOB Normandy, but then Jennifer and I were waylaid en route, so we missed each other again.

In a few hours, though, Brian and Jessica should be returning from Normandy by convoy, and the gang will be whole once more.

I've really appreciated the trips outside of Warhorse - they've been the most valuable time I've spent here - but it's going to be nice to have a little time with the whole team. It's been a while.

The Arms Race

I was sitting in the coffee shop when I noticed people running by outside.

Then I heard the alarm, "Incoming...Incoming..." and realized that it had been going on for several seconds. I was so engrossed in the conversation I was having that I hadn't noticed it earlier.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A shot in the dark, Part 2

I caught myself staring into my lunch today. I was hungry but felt defeated with each bite. My cheese tortellini depressed the hell out of me. When we arrived in Iraq almost two weeks ago, I was excited to find little cartons of soymilk. Every kind of food you could ever want has been available. The possibilities once seemed endless. I had hoped it would never end.

"You should try the peach cobbler. I make it myself."

I looked up from my tray. Across from me sat a man with a name tag that had "Rodney" embossed on it.

Read more at Alaska Dispatch

Friday, August 14, 2009

A shot in the dark, Part 1

He walked up quietly and asked what I was doing.

"Taking pictures," I said pointing to my camera setup and the memorial wall. He turned, as if to walk away, but instead started pointing at names. After touching nearly a dozen names he turned and walked back to me.

"I remember them in here," he points to his head.

"I hate that thing," he said pointing back at the wall, "It's obnoxious."

We were quiet for a minute, maybe five.

Read more at Alaska Dispatch

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Web Coverage - Part 2

Our embedded journalists continue to grab headlines across the web as more of their stories are being picked up by media outlets and blogs. Here's some links:

Anchorage Daily News has dedicated an entire section to the stories of our embedded students: UAF Students in Iraq

Also mentioned in a recent article concerning global reporting:
As well, The Thunder Run, a blog specializing in news from the front lines, has started linking to our articles. P2pnet has also written a short article about our students that can be found here.

You can follow our group's tweets by searching Twitter for "#uafiraq" or by following this link.

Air Assault

I thought we had hit some turbulence. Everyone stood up and filed out the ramp of the Chinook Helicopter. As I stepped off the ramp, I was blinded by the dirt and straw kicked up from the rotors. Following the soldiers, I stumbled over the ruts for a few yards and knelt as the helicopter lifted off.

The dust settled, revealing a star blanketed sky. It was about 3 a.m. Orion could be seen, but here, the celestial warrior stretched horizontal. The half moon illuminated furrows from farming and a plateau jutting from the mostly flat land. Beyond the plateau ahead of us, sparse lights from a distant village could be seen.

Within the plateau, the soldiers spotted an unexpected light. This caused concern and the soldiers stood fast with their rifles ready. It was possible this light could be from a fire inside a cave.

Soldiers immediately moved to investigate the light. The Iraqi Army and a small squad from the 1st Platoon, B Co., 1-25th Stryker Brigade led the way, beginning a mission that would continue past dawn.

-Jessica Hoffman

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Our embedded journalism student, Jessica Hoffman, reports on the Stryker Brigade's preparations to head home as well as what the soldiers are looking forward to when they return to Alaska.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Ashraf Powder Keg

Generally, the situation in Iraq, and in Diyala Province, is peaceful.

The Iraqi Army and police forces, though derided by many as ineffective, are at least strong enough to maintain a general stability among the many groups jockeying for power here.

It's a fragile peace, however, and one feels that it's always just one incident away from being shattered. With that in mind, senior officers here at Warhorse and around Diyala are keeping a very close eye on the situation at Camp Ashraf.

More at Alaska Dispatch.

Current Coverage of Embed Project

The Short Timer's blog is only a slice of the stories UAF-Journalism's embedded students are working on. Media networks from across the globe have not only been covering their progress through interviews but also publishing the works of our embedded students on their websites. To date, this is the current extent of the coverage with articles written by our team highlighted in red:
Outside Alaska:

The Reese Memo

While it probably hasn't had as great an impact in the U.S. as it has here, a leaked memo from Col. Timothy Reese (Chief of the Baghdad Operations Command Advisory Team) has been the source of a lot of water cooler talk over here, from the top brass down to the average Joes in the dining facility.

Essentially, the memo says it's time to get out of here, as fast as possible, as U.S. forces have come past the point of diminishing returns in terms of what they can accomplish setting up a stable government and ensuring that it has a good shot at remaining stable. Reese strongly criticizes the Iraqi government and their security forces for what he sees as major failures at every level of organization. It's a blistering few pages, and surprisingly readable for a military memo.

In case you're wondering what the consensus is here about whether Reese is right, most soldiers I've talked to feel strongly that he is, although the more politically-minded among them concede that it probably wasn't the smartest thing for him to let slip to the whole world, given the increasingly strained relationship between the governments in Washington and Baghdad.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dust Can Be Your Friend

Dust kicked up from the leaves of the small green bushes as we trudged across the desert. Walking alongside the Iraqi Army and soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery Regiment, 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team was tough. The body armor, weighing in at about 40 pounds, combined with brick oven temperatures was grueling. Somehow it all seemed bearable, but the dust. Breathing it in was almost like the smoke, suffocating and annoying to the sinuses.

More at Alaska Dispatch.

~Jessica Hoffman

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Alaska Dispatch Exclusives: Body Armor & The Base At Night

Editor's note: We have begun producing exclusive blog content for Alaska Dispatch. New material will continue to be produced both for this site and for the Dispatch; our exclusives for the Dispatch will be posted here as an abstract and link to the full article on their site.

The base at night
Jennifer Canfield

"I'd rather not get you killed," he said.

Sgt. Jeremy Pitcher was tasked with escorting me around base late last night. The night we arrived at Warhorse, I'd noticed how the buildings - unremarkable during the day - were fascinating at night. Under the moon the buildings took on a sparkling, ghost-like quality.
Full article at Alaska Dispatch

Getting body armor
Tom Hewitt

"After 15 minutes," said the Army National Guardsman we talked to in the Amsterdam airport, "you won't even remember you're wearing it."

If only he had been right.
Full article at Alaska Dispatch

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Look

Passing people on the street, the convoys always draw stares. It's easy to guess why - the vehicles are imposing, and there are often turret gunners rolling their .50-caliber barrel back and forth, looking for possible vectors of incoming fire. Since July 1, too, the American military has made a concerted effort to stay out of urban areas whenever possible, so the mine-resistant vehicles are more of a novelty than they used to be.

There's no mistaking the looks, though, and they run the gamut from idle curiosity to annoyance to suspicion and outright glaring. It's not too often that someone is happy to see the convoys. It does happen, though - while I was in a convoy on the way to a detainee release in Baqubah this morning, a naked boy waved and smiled from a roadside merchant's stand. The merchant, presumably his relative, eyed us less charitably.

Some people might think the Iraqis are being ungrateful for American efforts to rebuild the country and foster stability. The truth is, though, that if armored vehicles from some foreign power were rolling down the streets of Fairbanks, I doubt I would be all smiles either.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Recap: Our Trip So Far

Our posts lately have been pretty narrowly focused on particular situations we've encountered in our travels, so I thought I'd briefly recount what we've been up to since we arrived in the Middle East.

We arrived in Kuwait early Saturday morning, and were taken to a transfer base for processing and to arrange a flight into Iraq. Our processing there took almost exactly 24 hours, whence we got aboard a C-17 and flew to Baghdad. We were met there by a public affairs officer from the 1-25th Strykers. He helped us obtain our press credentials and secure transport to Forward Operating Base Warhorse in Diyala province.

While on our way to get our credentials at the Combined Press Information Center in the Green Zone, our convoy came within a few minutes of being hit by an IED, which made the situation getting into the Green Zone a bit tricky due to fears of another attack. We eventually made it into the CPIC, however, and got credentialed. Late Sunday night we flew out of Baghdad by Blackhawk helicopter - an awesome experience - and landed at FOB Warhorse.

Since Monday morning, we’ve been getting our feet back under us, and we're getting to work on our real mission: getting some stories produced. I'll keep you updated.

-Tom Hewitt

Monday, August 3, 2009

Saying Yes

The whole summer people have been asking me why I want to do this. I didn’t have a single answer. There are so many reasons. Somehow, travelling to Iraq, I found one to sum it up.

I was watching the movie Yes Man on the flight from Minnesota to Amsterdam. The film’s premise is saying yes to any opportunity that presents itself.

In the beginning, the main character (played by Jim Carrey) goes out of his way to escape from doing things. He makes up stories to avoid his friends. Instead he sits at home and watches rental movies.

At some point, a friend from high school invites Carrey to a motivational seminar. After the seminar, he begins his journey as a yes man.

During Carrey’s encounters he finds himself in situations he would never normally accept. If he refuses to say “yes” to the opportunity, something bad happens. Through trial and error, he finds saying “yes” brings good fortune.

This trip is not a movie and something could go horribly wrong. But if I said “no” to opportunities like this, what would I miss? And… I wouldn’t have cool stories to tell the grandkids.

~Jessica Hoffman

Wake-Up Call

When we arrived at the transfer base in Kuwait, one of the first things I noticed was the casual atmosphere. Soldiers in logo t-shirts played pickup basketball at two o'clock in the morning, and the recreation tent was full of troops both in and out of uniform, playing games on Nintendo Wiis or watching Fast & Furious on a projector.

The military realities of life on base were still prevalent; checkpoints were extremely tightly controlled and there were forms to fill out and command hierarchies to navigate at every turn. Also, the relaxed nature of some of the soldiers could be explained away by the fact that many of them were on their way out of the war, either for a few weeks of leave or for good. Still, you could almost forget that there was a war going on, and how close by the base was to the "front," if the notion of "fronts" still applies in modern warfare.

When we boarded the "Daytime Rhino" in Baghdad yesterday, the difference in tone from Kuwait was unmistakable. The "Rhino" is a short convoy of heavily armored vehicles known as MRAPs (short for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle) that travel between Baghdad International Airport and the Green Zone, through some of the most attack-prone territory in the city. The woman manning the turret was friendly but extremely firm as she explained what to do if our vehicle was attacked.

As we rumbled down the streets of Baghdad, no attack seemed forthcoming, and it seemed again like the war was a concept that existed someplace far away. Despite all of the security, I began to wonder exactly how dangerous the situation really was.

Just outside the entrance to the Green Zone, the convoy rolled to a halt. No one seemed to understand what was going on, and apprehension filled the air inside the vehicle. The turret gunner swiveled back and forth, anticipating a possible attack from an uncertain direction.

After a few minutes, the gunner knelt down and passed on what she had heard over the radio: An IED had exploded on our route minutes before we arrived, and the Iraqi Army was locking down the Green Zone. No word had yet been given on potential casualties. We were turning around and heading back to the airport immediately, presumably to avoid being sitting ducks for a second attack.

The realization that we were minutes away from having triggered an IED triggered a reaction that came like a flood:

This is a war, and while as embeds we might sometimes be divorced from the immediate realities of the fighting, our lives are in the hands of the people whose job it is to never get complacent, to never forget where they are and what the consequences are if they let their guard down.

I hope they do a better job remembering that than I did.

-Tom Hewitt

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Counterpoint: On The Worth Of Technology In Reporting

Brian’s Luddite Manifesto earlier prompted a defensive reflex in me, so I’ve decided to offer a counterpoint.

I could pick Brian’s assertions apart piece-by-piece, or hold forth on the questionable wisdom of attacking the very same technology that allows you to post your content directly to anywhere in the world wirelessly from the floor of the Minneapolis airport, but I won’t. What I’ll do instead is tell a little story.

As we prepared to leave the airport in Amsterdam, a series of bizarre delays left us stuck on the tarmac for over two hours. Brian, looking worried, passed me an email (printed out, naturally – the man doesn’t use a computer unless he has to) from the military liaison who was scheduled to meet us upon our arrival in Kuwait.

My first thought was to contact her via email, but only secure wireless networks were available. I noticed, however, that the liaison had attached her international cell phone number, so I paused the music on my iPhone and selected a local cell provider’s network. Two text messages later, the liaison had all the information she needed. I turned the phone to airplane mode again and went back to listening to music.

Try doing that from inside a plane with a reporter’s notepad or a Selectric typewriter, and let me know how it works for you.

-Tom Hewitt

Suppressing The Urge

All you Facebook friends out there, Twitter devotees and the like, forgive Jessica, Tom and Jennifer for their relative silence during a passage that actually warranted status updates. Look for them to fill in the blanks as soon as they power up.

We crossed the globe, passed security checks on three continents and bunked in military tents as a rosy desert dawn lit this gateway camp outside Kuwait City. The name goes unmentioned in accordance with military rules governing our embedding.

All the way the professor squashed student passions for updating their every move. Call me paranoid, but it struck me that our group, being unusual in its Alaska student involvement, invited problems from those looking for ways to embarrass the U.S.

Or worse.

My nerves began fraying when a recent article by the Chronicle of Higher Education unleashed a wave of national publicity about our embedding project. I really worried after our commercial media partners announced our departure Thursday, ignoring or perhaps misinterpreting my request to fudge on the travel dates. “Leaving this weekend,” would have covered our tracks nicely. The reporter is a friend. I was likely unclear. And I’ll never fault journalists for printing the truth.

Jessica’s dad gets ultimate credit for Friday’s sleepless night en route from Europe. It was his suggestion I prepare for this venture by watching the movie “Taken.” I kept putting it off this summer. It seemed fortuitous when I came across the flick on the list of free videos offered on our final-leg KLM flight.

The plot certainly resonated: A beautiful young woman flies off to Paris-- over her doting daddy’s objections—gets kidnapped, virtually from the airport, and soon lands in white slavery.

Stand down, retired Master Sgt. Hoffman, the entire base has her back now.

By the time we huddled in Kuwait City’s airport lobby, every stranger seemed a threat and I summoned the A-Team in the form of Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kelli Roesch, a Navy reservist, and her cohorts from the camp’s Media Transit unit.

We’re being issued flak jackets at noon.

None too soon.

--Brian O’D