All Is Calm: New Year's Eve in Baghdad
How one U.S. soldier in Iraq spent the last day of 2010.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE PROSPERITY, Iraq—A few years ago, an embedded reporter in Iraq looking for a bit of action on New Year's Eve might hang around an emergency room or medical clinic here in Baghdad. On New Year's Eve anywhere in the world, these places tend to be a Hogmanay of news, and at the end of a different year in Iraq, particularly that wretched period of 2004-07, chances were especially good that a military or civilian hospital in the Iraqi capital would offer up a story or two, usually of massive misfortune to mark the end of another bad year.
Instinctively, I decided to spend the last day of 2010 at the largest medical clinic in the Green Zone, still a fortified area of Baghdad that is off-limits to the average Iraqi citizen, although Iraqi soldiers, not Americans, now control its checkpoints. It rained buckets all day, leaving everything a muddy, sloppy mess. Inside the Ortiz Consolidated Medical Clinic, named for Capt. Maria Inez Ortiz, who died in a rocket attack on this base in 2007, two soldiers got their teeth cleaned. The medics on duty waited for someone to wander in during sick-call hours, which is mostly what they see here at this point in the Iraq operation. Sgt. Jonathan Strand, a combat medic, fired up the armored ambulance, but it hasn't been on an official emergency run since his unit got to Iraq in July. The 547th Medical Company (Area Support) from Fort Lewis, Wash., decorated a bulletin board with their favorite moments from 2010. Someone wrote, "Dance Dance Revolution." Others noted a pie in the first sergeant's face, "Christmas with the crusaders," and scrambling for a Haiti deployment that never happened.
I'm here for another story that didn't happen. What is most memorable about Dec. 31, 2010, in Iraq, for a U.S. soldier, contractor, or diplomat stationed here, is how relatively calm it is. Heck, it's so calm I can't even assemble a small posse of reporters to go to brunch on New Year's Day at DOJO's Diner. Nobody's in town.
But the calm is relative. This is still a war zone. While traveling with the military, I wear a bullet-proof vest, a helmet, eye protection, ear protection, flame-resistant gloves, and long sleeves, mandated gear if I want a lift on a Black Hawk or in a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle called an MRAP. At Contingency Operating Site Kalsu in Iskandariyah a few days ago, I spent the morning crouching in a bunker, because the place still routinely gets hit by rockets. But it was nothing like the hellhole it was in late 2004, when I was last there with the Marines. Back then, U.S. forces referred to this area south of Baghdad as the "Triangle of Death," and we spent our days looking for two kidnapped French journalists. I asked Army Capt. Lucas McCormick of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment what they call it now. He gave me a weird look. "Um, Babil province," he said, noting the official name.
If you're looking for politics or an opinion about the Iraq war, move right along. I'm not that kind of journalist, and this is not that kind of story. This is a story about one soldier, 27-year-old Strand, whose wrist is in a black cast after he broke it punching a swinging bag during a cardio workout a few weeks ago. Strand spent half of this year in Iraq away from home, and he will spend the first six months of the next year here, too. He'll go back to Washington state for a while, rest up, maybe do a little hunting and fishing, train some more, and then deploy again, because that's what a simple soldier does, he said. They go where they're told, and because he's planning to make a career in the Army, he expects he will be sent somewhere again, hopefully Afghanistan, because he's already done two tours in Iraq.
This is also a story about a single day in the life of that one soldier in this one little part of Iraq. In another neighborhood in Baghdad, the families of two dead Iraqi Christians are in mourning after a series of bomb and grenade attacks on at least four homes the night before New Year's Eve. An Iraqi police commander and three officers in the northern city of Mosul were killed on Dec. 29. Two days earlier, 19 people were killed in twin suicide blasts at the government center in Ramadi. If you ask their family members or the family members of the 13 U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq after combat operations officially ended on Aug. 31, it was a devastating year.
Under the terms of a security pact with the Iraqi government, U.S. forces must be gone by the end of 2011. Presumably, if that holds, the 50,000 soldiers celebrating this New Year's Eve in Iraq will be among the last to deploy here, although a yet-to-be-determined number of security forces will need to remain in Iraq to protect the U.S. State Department mission.
"You could easily become overly focused on transitioning out of here and not accomplishing the mission that was laid out for us, which is to advise, train, and equip the Iraqi security forces; partner counterterrorism operations; and support civilian capacity," Maj. Gen. Edward Cardon, deputy commanding general of support for U.S. forces in Iraq, told me in a Dec. 29 interview at Camp Victory, a sprawling garrison near the Baghdad International Airport.
U.S. troops will spend much of the next year building facilities for the Iraqi forces, training them, engaging in a massive logistical movement of equipment, some of it heading home, some going to the Iraqis, some to Afghanistan, and some to the State Department here in Iraq. They'll go on joint patrols, as they do now, finish school projects, close some bases, and transfer others to the Iraqis, all part of the newly named Operation New Dawn, which began Sept. 1. In reality, for many troops, the change in mission simply meant new posters, a new name. Troops still carry guns and still chase after insurgents, although mostly at the invitation of and nearly always alongside Iraqi forces. They give advice and ask how they can assist. At the same time, the State Department is also trying to figure out how to take charge of the civilian part of the mission, assuming logistical control of that huge operation.
"The U.S. Mission in Iraq, headed by our embassy, has an enormous task to continue here in the years ahead as the military mission gives way to U.S. diplomacy, economic investments, and enduring security relationships," said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for U.S. Forces Iraq. "We are determined to get as much work done in the months ahead that we can. We are going to make use of every day we have left here, for as long as we can, to keep improving the performance of the Iraqi forces."
For Strand, his part of the mission has meant providing hands-on training for Iraqi doctors as part of the "Over the Shoulder" program organized by the State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghdad. He teaches the doctors how to unblock airways and offers combat medical techniques that he learned treating mass casualties during his first deployment to Iraq in 2007.
He remembers one of those times well, when rockets pounded Camp Liberty outside Baghdad in October 2007. He was in one of the first ambulances to arrive on the bloody scene, finally able to get to the dining facility where the rockets hit. Two U.S. troops were killed and nearly 40 injured in that attack.
The clinic where he was working was much like the one on this deployment, a Level 2 trauma facility. That means they have X-ray and lab technicians, equipment for dental exams, and a small number of "beds" to treat the wounded. But the clinics are used mostly to stabilize patients before transferring them to a combat support hospital, or CASH. Strand is the evacuation coordinator responsible for doing that.
"We don't even have any blood here," noted Staff Sgt. Brian Hayden, 37, an Army lab technician who is also on his second deployment to Iraq. He works at the Ortiz clinic with Strand. "I think we've had one shrapnel wound in the six months we've been here this time," he said.
On New Year's Eve, because it was slow, Strand took me on a drive through the Green Zone, now officially called the International Zone, or IZ. We old-timers still call it the Green Zone. We went through a series of checkpoints, showing our special badges at each one. Our destination was a private Iraqi hospital that used to be a combat-support hospital. Strand did a one-month trauma rotation at this hospital in 2007, earning himself a prized "Baghdad ER" T-shirt. He recalled chaotic days with patients in litters stacked up and waiting to be treated or evacuated, filling the Army choppers with troops wounded from devastating IED attacks or roll-overs.
He lost patients. This is war. Not everybody goes home to spend the next holiday with their families, and Strand said he puts up a tough front for "my guys."
"But inside it hits me," he said. "I got into the field to do the best I can do. The ones that make it out, they make it out. You always want to see a win."
As a medic, getting that kind of experience in treating combat wounds was invaluable, he said. It's not that he wants anyone to come in wounded. It's not that. It's just that he's a medic, and this is his job, to help people.
"It's been very quiet," he said. "It's definitely a change from the last time I was here. A lot of the new medics, they don't have to go through what we went through. It has calmed down a lot. It's died down."
Strand's grandfather and stepfather, the man he calls his dad, were both Marines. His other grandfather was in the Navy. Strand considers himself a military man, which is why he wasn't even registering that this was a holiday.
FOB Prosperity was hosting a New Year's Eve party at the dining facility, minus the booze, of course. Soldiers were invited to come dressed up or not, however they pleased. It's a dining facility, after all. Grilled cheese and fries by day, nonalcoholic beer by night. The New Year's Day 5K was postponed for security reasons, however.
The most Strand would offer by way of a New Year's contemplation was this: "I don't want to be sitting as a 60-year-old man on my front porch thinking what I could have done," he said. "I'm proud to wear the uniform. It's been a very good year. I'm happy. I'm healthy. I've got a lot of options, a lot of things ahead of me. Any time you have a great job, doing what you love, with people who support you, that's a measure of a great life.
Jackie Spinner is a journalist based in the Middle East. She was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 14 years and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is the author of Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq.