Wednesday, May 25, 2016

When I Was in Iraq: Part Nine - July 4th, 2004

The Fourth of July

I did not keep a diary in Iraq. I wish I had, because there are some details that have become cloudy as a combination of the fog of war and the passage of time.

I believe that the first mortar attack against our base, which I described in an earlier post, happened after the June 24 attacks and before the Fourth of July.

No matter. In the midst of working 90 consecutive 11 hour days, the Fourth of July arrived.

And when you are in a war zone, that means it's just another work day.

It was a Sunday. But it turned out that the people running our camp managed to make it a little bit of a party despite our conditions.

I got up that morning as I always did and completed my workout. We worked our 11 hour day as usual.

But when we were done, we learned that dinner that night was steak, burgers, and brats, cooked on the grill!

After days of eating various imaginations of lamb, this was a welcome treat!

Furthermore, this meal would be served by the pool. That's right, we had a pool on base. Our base had formerly been a well-to-do villa in [CITY NAME WITHHELD BY NSA CENSOR].  As my CIA colleague and I arrived to dinner, we learned that steaks and burgers were the least of the surprises of this July 4th party.

They had beer.

This was unexpected. Alcohol was forbidden to US warfighters in a war zone.

But our Allies didn't all share this sentiment. Our Australian counterparts, as I understood it, had plenty of Fosters to issue to their soldiers.

And our base administration had managed to buy a bunch of cans of Fosters from them to embellish our celebration.

It had been well over two weeks since I took a drink. (I drank wine in Jordan on the very night before I left for Iraq. I mean, why not?)

The rule was that we were not allowed to wear our sidearms and drink alcohol. Our base was secure. I had no problem taking off my belt holster and leaving my Glock in my living quarters for the time of the party.

As I cracked open a Fosters and sucked it down, I felt the sweet open-mouth wet-kiss of alcohol upon my brain.

Oh, how I had missed you!

But I was not going to let this opportunity completely derail my schedule. I ate a burger, loved it. I took a second can of Fosters. They had inflatable pool mats laying around. I took my second beer, and I laid down on the float. I pushed myself out, beer in hand, looking out into the night full of stars. I recall taking deep breaths, sipping that beer, and coming to terms with it all.

The night sky, floating on that pool, was peaceful. It was beautiful. That beer was delicious. The alcohol on my brain was an unexpected and welcome experience amidst all the danger and chaos.

Now, [CITY NAME WITHHELD BY CENSOR] is a pretty big city. Even so, there was no light pollution such as we experience it in the USA. As a result, the sky was a white swath of stars; I lay on a float on a pool with a beer, contemplating the Milky Way. 

 As you look out into the abyss, you feel so tiny in the big picture. But at the same time, I could not let go of the simple reality of my situation. I had a job to do. I was in a dangerous place. I had to maintain control.

And so, that had to be the end of it. I finished my second beer and I left the party. I went to bed, not knowing how alcohol-infused sleep would change my schedule the following day.

It didn't. I woke up at 4am. I drank coffee. I worked out.

In terms of work, July 5th was the same as July 4th.

But there had been a brief stop along the way. The memory of the party would sustain me for weeks to come. And there were many more weeks to come...

Monday, May 23, 2016

When I was in Iraq: Part Eight

The Second Attack

I had heard the low thuds of car bombs going off in the distant city on June 24. Our base was on the outskirts. I sincerely hoped that my three months could pass without any significant incident in my immediate proximity.

That was all about to change.

I don't remember what day it was. It doesn't matter. As I have described, you are constantly rehydrating in Iraq, so I was on my way to the latrine (in the daytime I treated myself to the bathroom itself).

On my way, I heard someone slam a door so hard, so loudly, that my visceral reaction was anger.

"Why should someone slam a door like that??!!" I thought.

I kept walking. And then it happened again. Someone was slamming a door shut, so hard that it echoed through our compound. And my anger mounted. Why the f%$k was someone slamming a door shut like that?

And that's when I saw it. This object was tumbling end over end through the sky, it landed outside our concrete walls. And then I both saw, heard, and felt the shock wave of an explosion. I had just seen a mortar land. And I retroactively realized--the slamming door had also been mortars.

And then I saw another one. It was tumbling end over end. I stood there, watching it as it also, thankfully, landed on the other side of our wall. The explosion washed over me.

A moment of silence. It was over. Only then, I suddenly realized, HOLY SHIT! WE'RE UNDER ATTACK! I ran to the CIA blast resistant work space. I would wait there until they declared the all clear.

I should have run to cover the moment I knew I was in danger. But I had not done so. And that's because, like so many people, I don't realize I'm in danger until long after the danger passes. 

I have learned after the fact that the human body turns new experiences into things it understands. That's why I heard those first mortar attacks as slamming doors. My brain was turning those sounds into something it understood. Once I saw the bombs in the air, I was able to hear the explosions occurring around me.

I have called this the "FIRST ATTACK" because it would not be the last.

As we all caught our breath that day, we took stock of the fact that we were in a war zone. I recall pensive and nervous glances exchanged over dinner. It was only somewhere inside July. I would not leave until mid-September. My tour would not be as long as many people. But it was longer than anyone I knew at the time. 

That would not be the last attack our base would face. But that's for another day...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

When I Was in Iraq: Part Seven

As an NSA agent in Iraq during that war, I served my country to the best of my ability, using my talents in the area of "Force Protection," meaning finding any information that implied attacks upon our War Fighters and communicating that to our Military Command.

But in the course of my time living in that country, I did one thing in particular that I am not particularly proud of. That is perhaps why it needs to be told.

I have previously described how I jealously maintained a schedule which ensured eight hours of sleep every night.

And I learned my first night sleeping at my base why that would be difficult.

Keep in mind, it's always above 100 degrees during the daytime in Iraq during the summer (it was June when I arrived). So you need to be constantly hydrating. And that means that you will invariably need to relieve yourself. I woke up in the middle of my first night on base needing to do just that. I walked the 100 or so feet to the latrine and urinated. I walked the 100 or so feet back to my little cabin...and never slept again before morning.

Houston, we have a problem.

I have a particular issue wherein, if I wake up too much in the middle of the night, I have serious difficulties in falling back asleep. Even now, when I wake up,  I do the best I can to do my business, keeping my eyes shut as much as possible.

But obviously, I could not keep my eyes shut and walk 200 feet every night.

I was describing this problem the following morning to a CIA agent at breakfast. And he told me of the solution he had already discovered. Keep several empty water bottles around. Relieve yourself into them. And empty them in the morning at the latrine. 

That night I tested the method. I awoke. I went. A minute later I was back in bed. A minute after that, I was asleep.

Thank you, CIA agent! It worked!

The following morning, on my way to brush my teeth, I took the previous night's piss bottle along, emptied it, rinsed it out, and set out into another day.

I worked that assignment for a total of 90 consecutive, eleven hour days. At some point, I decided that there was no urgent reason to bring the previous night's single piss bottle to the latrine for disposal. I could surely wait until the next day and bring two.

Piss bottles awaiting latrine delivery would be stored under my bed, which you can see in the picture to the left. That was my simple dwelling. I watched the 2004 Summer Olympics on that TV. Ah, good times...

You see where this is heading, right? I am a lifelong procrastinator. And so, in the course of time, it would not be unusual for me to be carrying four piss bottles to the latrine for disposal.  

I had agreed to three months at the assignment. My handler suddenly was asking me just a few weeks before my departure if maybe I could stay another month. I utterly refused. I was imagining surviving those three months and the attacks it included and then the potential of being killed in that final month. No way I was going to risk that. As a result of my refusal, personnel were shifted around and the man who replaced me arrived on the very plane I would fly out on. He would take over my job and my living quarters. He and I shook hands on the tarmac. I wished him well.

I was thousands of feet in the air on my way back to Baghdad, and then onward travel to Amman, Jordan, before returning home when...I realized...there were three piss bottles under my bed.

Sorry, dude. 

I'm not proud of what I just described. Forgive me. It was war.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

When I was in Iraq: Part Six

The First Attack

I had come to Iraq knowing it was a war zone. The fact that I was required to wear a side-arm at all times showed how dangerous it all was.

But despite the constant weaponry around me, I had not encountered anything that meant I was in a war.

Until June 24, 2004.

When I first came to work at the NSA, I was sent to have a hearing test done. People doing the "listening mission" spend most of their day listening to audio and there is the concern that such a job could eventually minimize someone's ability to hear. As a result, they constantly test the hearing of linguists and if there is any degradation of hearing, they will pull someone off the listening mission as a precaution. Good of them.

I noticed my test was taking a long time. I didn't know if this was good or bad. I had been told to press the button whenever I heard a tone. I kept hearing tones, so I kept clicking. 

When it was all over, I was informed that I had supernaturally good hearing. The analyst told me that I performed as hearing an octave above and below the normal range for human ability. This served as confirmation for something I had noticed all my life. I would wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to fall asleep again because I heard dogs barking. Now I know that they were probably miles away.

Even now, I have the problem that I seem to not be able to hear someone close up, but that is only because I am seriously distracted by a conversation happening on the other side of the room.

All that serves to explain why, when I was sitting in my work station on Thursday, June 24, 2004, I suddenly heard several low thuds. They were far away. But they were real. I told my CIA agent boss, "Something just happened." 

"I didn't hear anything," he said.

Some minutes later we were learning that there had been a series of coordinated car bombs in the city. In the final count, there were 60+ dead and hundreds more wounded.

This was the first hint that things were beginning to unravel. They stationed a group of soldiers from the Pennsylvania National Guard on our base after that, in recognition that the security of our base needed to be bolstered. They would begin conducting patrols outside our perimeter, previously only monitored from within. 

I made friends with those guys. But, despite that, I never wavered from the strict schedule I have described in previous posts--asleep by 8pm, so I would have eight hours of sleep by 4am, to then work out for at least an hour before I had to begin my work.

The Pennsylvania soldiers would ask me over dinner to join them in a game of Risk. They had the hard copy version of the game. I told them I would, but not tonight. And not tonight turned into never.

They were part of the security detail that went to the airport when I eventually left in September. We were waiting on the tarmac for the plane that would fly me away. There was a mortar attack at some distance. We felt and heard the thuds but we knew it was far enough away that we did not need to take cover. Then we saw some American asset begin firing tracer rounds into the sky. I looked at them, streaming into the night. It was actually beautiful.  

Then one of the Pennsylvania soldiers said, "Hey, we never got you to play a game of Risk with us." 

In that moment I felt a deep remorse that is still with me to this day.

In my final few weeks, why didn't I just decide that my precious schedule didn't matter anymore? Those guys should have mattered more to me than my eight hours of sleep or my time working out.  I will always have a deep regret for not having accepted their invitation. 

That was almost twelve years ago. All I can do now is try to live my life in such a way that I don't ever repeat that mistake...

Learning Latin with Pope Francis - May 19, 2016

To visit my archive of Latin Papal Tweets, go to my main page. 

May 19, 2016 

Literal translation of the Latin: Love and forgiveness are true and visible signs of the faith which has filled our hearts.

This is a lovely bit of Latin, arguably a better rendering than the English original.

Here's how the Latin works:

Grammar Points
nom. sing. masc. noun
amor, amoris; subj. of sunt
nom. sing. fem. noun
venia, veniae; subj. of sunt
3rd pers. sing. pres. ind. verb
sum, esse, fui
nom. pl. neut. adj.
verus, vera, verum; modifies signa
nom. pl. neut. adj.
conspicuus, conspicua, conspicuum; modifies signa
nom. pl. neut. noun
signum, signi
of the faith
gen. sing. fem. noun
fides, fidei; antecedent of quae
nom. sing. fem. rel. pronoun
qui, quae, quod; subj. of implevit
acc. pl. neut. adj.
noster, nostra, nostrum; modifies corda
has filled
3rd pers. sing. perf. ind. act. verb
impleo, implere, implevi, impletus
acc. pl. neut. noun
cor, cordis

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

When I was in Iraq: Part Five

It eventually sunk in as to what exactly I had gotten myself into. I was an Intelligence Officer at a US Base in Iraq, during the Occupation Phase of that War. And I would be there for three months. Not as long as most soldiers. But longer than anyone I knew at the time.

When I was offered this deployment, I was asked by the assigning officer, "How long do you want to be there?"

In my naivete, I asked, "What's a normal deployment?"

She said, "Three months."

I replied, "Then give me that."

I was then and remain so naive...

When I arrived, I learned that my boss had arrived just prior to my arrival and he would be leaving in a month. 


And then my next boss arrived, who said, "Looking forward to working with you for the next month."


When my third boss arrived in August with the news that he would be there for a month, I inquired as to the normal tours of duty of civilian intelligence officers at this time in the war.

And I learned that ONE MONTH was the norm!

She had the problem of finding Arabic linguists to man that base, but I had, through my naivete, given her essentially two months off! 

In the final month of my service on that base, the CIA Station Chief was regularly calling me into his office to ask me questions about things that had happened in June and early July, because I WAS THE ONLY PERSON ON BASE WHO WAS THERE IN THAT TIME FRAME!!!!

And then, with just a week before I was scheduled to leave, I got a call from the assigning officer.

She was asking me if I might be willing to stay an extra month. It was immediately obvious that, with two months off from worrying about that post, she had dropped the ball on finding my replacement.

I told her in no uncertain terms that the answer was no.

Because, it shot through my mind, imagine this guy goes to Iraq for three months, he survives it, despite mortar attacks and sniper fire that did happen while I was there. And then, he agrees to stay another month and...

I was not going to stay there another month for the even remote potential of the "and..."

She was annoyed by my answer, but that was now her problem.

I had dreamed of overlap with my replacement, but instead, she moved one agent from this place, to fill in for this agent to that place.

I ended up shaking hands with my replacement at the airport. He arrived on the plane I flew out on.

The trail of this article took me to my departure, but I'm not at all done sharing the emotional side of my deployment. When I resume, I will be back in Iraq in late June, as the attacks were about to begin....

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

When I was in Iraq: Part Four
As I've said, this series will be more about my emotions while I was on my deployment, than about details that I have already published in other blog posts, as well as in my book, Top Secrets: Lessons for Success from the World of Espionage.

I settled into life on the base. I slept every night in a little cabin, packed on the roof and around the area of my bed with sand bags in case a mortar landed in the night.

The CIA agents slept in the main house, where we also took our meals. It was a big house. It was never away from my mind how much safer they were than me.

The Shack in which I slept
They worked in a FEBR (Federally Evaluated Blast Resistant Building).  I worked in a cabin identical to the one I slept in. When our base was targeted in a mortar attack on two occasions when I was there, we ran in terror to the FEBR. They didn't even hear the attack inside.

I worked 90 consecutive 11 hours days in Iraq. 

We started at 6AM, worked an hour and then took a half hour for breakfast. We then worked until 12PM, when we took another half hour for lunch. Then we worked until 6PM, after which we went to dinner at the main house where the CIA agents lived in comfort.

I decided early on that the only way I was going to do any exercise was to do it before my regular day began. And so, I was lights out at 8PM every evening. I slept eight hours every night and woke up at 4AM. So I worked out from 4AM for an hour and then took a shower and prepared for my work day to begin.

I had been given advice before this deployment from a long term agent that the best way to survive any deployment was to plan your life around eight hours of sleep. Here were the reasons. First off, you are simply healthier with eight hours of sleep. When you are in harm's way, such as living in a war zone, you never know when something will require you to skip nights of sleep. And you will pull that off better if you are completely rested--caught up on sleep on your sleep. 

In 90 days of that deployment, my sleep was only disrupted twice. Once we received a shipment of a bunch of technical equipment that arrived at 2ish, and that meant I was up to help with the processing and never slept again. On another occasion, the CIA Station Chief decided to hold a base-wise security drill at 3ish in which we all ended up in the main house and I basically missed only the final hour of my regular night's sleep.

Okay, I've covered a lot of technical details in this post on my life at my posting in Iraq over ten years ago. And I promised that this series would be more about my emotions than about the mission.

There are plenty of emotional tales that will take place in months two and three of this deployment.

But I close with the following anecdote.

As I said above, I worked out from 4 to 5ish before my regular workday began.

Early on, I was working out and there were all these feral cats around. (The Prophet Muhammad loved cats, hence their widespread prevalence in Arab lands.)

As I was working out on a particular weight machine, one of these cats kept rubbing her face against my foot. I was avoiding her, because she was this horribly mangy mess of an animal. 

And then I looked out into the brightening morning sky. I was in Iraq. I was in serious danger. And I realized in that moment that I needed that animal's affection.

I picked her up and I cuddled her to my chest, and I cried. And I felt her purr against me. 

And I thought to myself, "What the fuck [pardon my war jargon] have I gotten myself into?"

What if we lived our lives "As If" religion were true...

I just read the most delightful article written by a person of hope. To be fair, the whole point of his article is that he is not a person of faith, and yet grapples with an education in science and reason, alongside significant education in Judaica and Hebrew.

But I will take a person of hope over a person of merely faith any day.

Ron Grossman, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, titles his reflection "Confessions of an 'as if' believer of religion."

Read his thoughtful article in full.

In the final analysis, what does it even mean to "have faith"? St. Paul wrote that, in the end, there are three things that abide--"Faith, Hope, and Love. And the greatest of these is Love" (1 Cor 13:13).

Would not this imply that Hope is greater than Faith?

In other words, to live your life "As If" is perhaps a more honest and genuine grappling with the Divine from within the human predicament than those who only have dogmatic and cheap answers to the pains we experience in the Universe.

I say this as someone who does weekly practice a religion. As such,  I welcome the perspectives of companions such as Mr. Grossman on the Path.

Some days, I do believe. Many days I doubt. All days, I hope. All days, I try to love. And all days I live my life as if there is something beyond this realm. 

Depending on the disposition of my soul when I pass from this life, maybe I will be relieved, maybe I will be surprised. Maybe I will be extinguished because nothing does finally exist beyond this realm.

But I hope that's not true. And I primarily hope that's not true because I should very much want to see again loved ones whom I have lost awhile. Even greater than my desire to continue in consciousness is my Love for those in the beyond.

"And the greatest of these is Love..."

I love them. That's solid. 

I hope to see them again. That follows. 

And so I have Faith. Flowing from Love and Hope, that ends up being the easiest one of all...

Monday, May 16, 2016

When I was in Iraq: Part Three

For this post, I need to actually take a step back in time. Today is my twin brother's wedding anniversary. He and his wife, Shari, married this day in 2004. 

I was, of course, in attendance, but I knew that I would be getting on a plane the following week to fly to Egypt, and that I would not return to the United States before then spending the three months in Iraq that I had agreed to.

And so, twelve years ago right now, I was enjoying a bittersweet time of contact with my family, and the angst--the dread--of where I was about to go.

My late mother was in poor health, as she had been for many years. In consultation with my father and others, we had decided to keep her in the dark about my upcoming trip until just before this weekend.

It was a delightful time; a traditional Jewish Wedding.

And my family, including my mother, all knew what was happening the next week.

There were laughter and tears. There were hugs. And as I separated from them all, I felt a deep sadness. I had to do this thing. But what was I putting my mother through? 

As a mother of four boys and one girl in the height of the Cold War, she undoubtedly had the low grade anxiety of wondering how she would face sending sons off to War in the inevitably expected war with the Communists.

But then Communism ended. She probably then never thought she would send a son to war. But now, here she was doing exactly that.

She told me that, no matter what, I was not to change my mission. 

She said that because she knew she was in poor health. And anything can happen. I understood and I promised her I would obey. Little did I knew that the issue would arise a few months later.

I hugged her and we both cried and cried.

And so, twelve years ago today, I took leave of my family and moved in the direction of my service in Iraq,

My mother arranged for me to be prayed for every Sunday at her Lutheran Church.  Every Sunday she heard, during the General Prayers, "For Iraq."

She had become...a war mother. Like so many others in times such as WWII or other conflicts. I hope she received regularly consolation from her faith community as she passed through that time.

She would pass through days upon days of knowing I was in harm's way but not knowing really how I was.

As I continue to tell this story, I will recount how she experienced a major health crisis while I there...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

When I was in Iraq: Part Two

When I was in Iraq: Part One

It was in June, 2004 that I arrived in Iraq. I was immediately coming to terms with the fact that I was in deepest danger I had ever faced in my life. I was in a war zone. 

They issued me body armor. They issued me a helmet. And they told me I should wear these articles constantly--for the next three months.

And they were heavy. As I acclimated to the little check-in base at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport), it was immediately apparent to me that most people weren't, in fact, wearing that gear at all times. I wore it while I awaited onward travel to my base of operations for the next three months. But it all weighed upon me, literally and figuratively.

I slept a fitful night in a room with about 20 other snoring guys and begged for morning to come.
I've told details of this story in my book Top Secrets: Lessons for Success from the World of Espionage. In that book, for instance, I tell about the emergency drill that happened that night, how I was issued my gun, and other points of interest. In this post I will primarily focus on my emotions as I was passing through my months in Iraq. (But I sure wouldn't mind if you buy my book!)

After lunch, I was waiting for a late afternoon flight to my eventual base. I recall sitting in a bright hall, studying Romanian vocabulary cards, since I had started to date a Romanian-American just prior to leaving on this mission.

There was a huge pile of MRE's sitting next to me. That stands for "Meals Ready to Eat." These were designed to sit potentially for years on end and still be edible to war fighters. I remember wishing I could try one of these. I mean, I was in Iraq. Yes, this little base I was on at the Airport had a full cafeteria, but these MRE's were here for a reason. They were laying here because of the potential that things might turn sour and the personnel here might have to eat off this pallet in an emergency.

I wanted to eat an MRE because I knew that there were war fighters in country who ate them every day. I was so fresh "off the boat" that I didn't know what my living conditions on base were going to be. 

I remember writing out vocabulary cards for Romanian next to that pallet of MRE's and eventually putting my pen down and just sitting there, trying to come to terms with it all.

I was in Iraq. In a few hours I was going to get on a plane and fly to my onward base. And I would be there for three months. Not as long as many people spent there. But longer than anyone I knew at that time.

I took a deep breath. I was still in my first full day in Iraq. There would be 90 more. What had I gotten myself into?