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Wednesday, June 02, 2004

More From James
I have been falling behind in forwarding on my posts from my buddy James in Baghdad.

Dateline: Baghdad, May 14, (14:00)
Tea, Crumpets, and Stout

Dear Kids,
Well time continues apace and I am working as hard as I am able. You can draw your own conclusions as to what that means. I have had the privilege of working for the last few days with a number of extremely bright young(ish) officers thinking big ideas and writing them down for the perusal of the senior folks. This is at the instruction of high level people, so theoretically the people with lots of gold braid on their hats will read these ideas. Knowing that such people are out here makes me feel better about the future of operations over here.

The most recent adventure was a journey to a nearby British compound as the guest of Lt Col Simon, the deputy commander of my team. Some important officers in the British military organization here are getting to the end of their tours, and their friends (or "Mates" as the British might say) were having a going-away party for them. Lt Col Simon just walked by, and I told him that I was writing a humorous description of our rip. He countered that I was "attempting" to be humorous.

The invitation was to go to the party and stay the night at the Brit compound. Although a bed would be provided, he could not guarantee linens, so he advised me to bring my "sleeping bag". Of course, I did not bring a sleeping bag to Iraq, so when I packed for the trip I was forced to pack up my giant orange and black tiger stripe U.S. army issue furry blanket. This monstrous and non-compressible item WOULD NOT fit in my back pack and so had to go in my airline carry on wheelie bag (which it filled to bursting). When I reported for departure, he looked at the two bags, and asked how many days I had packed for. Although I tried to
explain the whole furry blanket conundrum he responded that I had just verified his opinion about American officers in general, and the Navy in particular. (Let it now be said here, that I am quite fond of Lt Col Simon,
who possesses all the best qualities that British officers are so famous for. Key among them is his dry wit.)

After eating we reported to the Brit command post on base to meet a British shuttle team that would take us to the bigger British Headquarters. The transport team included drivers and security folks, all drawn from the Royal Highland Fusiliers. The Scottish origin of these gentlemen became apparent when the detachment commander began our pre-trip safety briefing. His speech was not overly rapid, but none the less incomprehensible. His Scottish accent made his English almost alien to me, only punctuated occasionally by phrases like "straight through", "overwatch", and "wheel hub". I began to understand the gist of his monologue, although not individual sentences, some times catching the meaning of a declaration several seconds after is had come and gone. Together with his hand gestures I was able to discern that he was giving us instructions on potential trouble scenarios and how we were all to react if trouble came. At the end the soldier asked if I we had any questions, and I in my dim witted pride said "no." Truth be told I had a pretty fair idea of how to behave if we had any difficulty, but probably only in the most general way. I vowed to follow Lt Colonel Simon's lead in the event of trouble.

Luckily it turned out to be unnecessary to try out my Scots-English to American-English translation skills. There was no trouble in transit, a trip that was accomplished with smooth competence by our Fusilier escorts.

When we arrived at the British headquarters we passed through several layers of security to enter, all conducted with top-notch British efficiency and civility. The compound was formerly a small Ba'ath Party executive residence (with privacy wall and various out buildings). The Brits did a much better job of keeping up the gardens and trees alive. On our base many of the plants have been allowed to wither and die out of carelessness. (The powers that be seem to be uninterested in whether their soldiers live in a garden or a desert. (The default choice is desert, since the palms and other plants on the American base need artificial watering to survive....which they are not getting.) Back to the thought, it was nice to see green. When we entered the main building to find that in addition to our visit, high-level members of the Iraqi government were being hosted that night. That meant that we had to absent ourselves and amble back to the pub building in the rear (the building also included a TV room, an exercise room, and a weight room.) The pub had not officially opened so we walked the grounds a bit and looked at the Tigris from a roof top gallery before returning to the pub.

There was still a bit to wait so we watched some Brit sports and some of the Crocadile hunter with some of the lads. Finally the holy hour came and the pub keeping private arrived to officially dispense the suds. The place quickly filled, becoming quite jovial. The building was prefab primitive, but had a certain expeditionary style. The pub room was decorated mostly with humorous beer adverts, with a display of local weapons (no doubt rendered safe) bolted to the wall. There was also a collage of photos of men from the 2 PARA (Second Battalion, The Parachute Regiment) engaged in some party like activity.

The pub keeper handed out the appropriate beverages to all. There was a wide variety of alcohol available, Guinness of course, but a wide variety of others too including a Lebanese beer the name of which escapes me. I of course as an American, was prohibited from consuming alcohol. The Arab language Coke was delicious. We also had mini French bread pizzas as pub food. Col Simon linked up with his friends and made all the requisite introductions. Then over the evening I enjoyed all the witty British Army anecdotes, and tried to keep my end up. (Unfortunately most Naval anecdotes center about lethal accidents, or drunkenness leading to physical illness.) Through the night more and more folks showed up to the warehouse/pub and the joint started rockin' out. There was a volunteer DJ in appropriate clubware in the corner layin' down the tunes in a manner worthy of a Brit rave or a German Loveparade.

Finally, there was heartfelt valedictory to the departing officers, and the presentation of Iraq oriented t-shirts (one already framed) signed with good wishes, jokes and the occasional lude joke. After things wound down I was escorted to our quarters. We roomed with one of Lt Col Simon's friends, who had unoccupied beds in his cube room. (Most of the rooms in the main building were created by putting partition walls in jumbo Saddam size rooms.) I got out my too short yellow sheet and fuzzy tiger stripe blanket and snuggled into bed. In the morning I got up early, and padded off to the bathroom It was gigantic, and signs instructed you how to use the toilets without breaking them. It seems that although they are gilded, they are built shoddily (Ha! What a surprise!) The shower was over a swimming pool size marble bathtub, and I only had one near fatal slip on the wet marble floor. (What a way to die in a combat zone!!) After shaving I found that I could not unlock the door to my section of the bathroom suite and had a traumatic moment imagining being trapped in there until I was rescued by some bemused British Sergeant. Unexpectedly the lock popped open and I escaped the trap and embarrassment worse than death. Soon Lt Col Simon was up, and we were off to a fine British cafeteria breakfast. Um, um, good. The bacon was extra robust, and the sausages were soft and tasty.

Finally, we met up with the security transport team for our ride home. We were treated to another monologue in Scottish, with only the slightest improvement in comprehension on my part. Then it was into the vehicles and off down the road.

There is nothing to say about the trip, it was fast and safe once again, and our Fusilier friends took us back to our lodgings. As we were getting out I thought of something. I had some of my "challenge coins" from my office back at Scott (AFB, Illinois) in my pack. They are a military item that people present as tokens appreciation in the military....a bronze coin (about the size of an old style Eisenhower dollar) with organizational logo and motto on them. Anyhoo...I had some in my bag and these fine Scots seemed the perfect recipients. I asked them to hold on a bit, dug them out of my bag and handed one to each. They were pleasantly surprised, and we shook a hearty hand shake.

The British military has no comparable do dads so Lt Col Simon was unable to give them a physical token of his esteem, but he did stride forward to express his thanks. "Well, You will get bugger all from me" He told them, as he smiled and shook their hands warmly. The drivers laughed, saluted and drove off.

Well, all back home safe and sound having seen how our Brit friends do things. We could learn a thing or two from them.

God Bless,
See you next time.

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