Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Birds Of Baghdad

Birds of Baghdad

Standing Watch in Baghdad

I love birds. Everywhere, I notice the birds; often I hear their voices before seeing them. To my ears, the most beautiful singers are the mockingbirds. I can listen to their songs for hours and hours, especially in the springtime, when the bachelors are courting and they sing all night during the full moons. In cities, lovesick bachelors often mistake a streetlight for the full moon, and perch in a nearby tree, singing their hearts out.

Some people cannot sleep to the mockingbird, but to me there is no sweeter song. When I hear a mockingbird in the spring, I'm reminded of Louis Armstrong's famous song, “What a Wonderful World.” On those full moon nights, I think to myself that the mockingbird is singing, I love you. Eventually, a female hears the song, and one by one, pairs form, nests are built from twigs and bits, and the circle of sweet songs continues.

During one of my trips to India, I was in a national park. Credit to the Indians for protecting the tigers (I saw two), elephants, and birds. I was lucky enough to photograph a few pairs of the rare Sarus cranes. Standing about six feet high, they are the tallest flying birds. The Sarus have become symbols of fidelity; when a Sarus' mate dies, the forlorn other is known to stand around its lifeless mate, to stop eating and grooming itself, until finally succumbing to despair. Born to die of a broken heart.

I came across quite another beast. Something I was not prepared for. I had already nominated the cockroach as the only purely “ugly” and revolting creature on the planet. Even maggots were not that revolting. Up until then, cockroaches were the only creatures that utterly disgusted me, although in some parts of the world, they are delicacies. Of all creatures, cockroaches stood alone in their capacity to appall me; then I met the Marabou stork.

It was the ugliest beast I have ever seen. There were actually two Marabous, which was lucky for both of them as each stood zero chance of interspecies breeding. They were at a crocodile farm in Cambodia, a place where the people told me the Khmer Rouge used to feed prisoners to the crocodiles. I was staggered by the ugliness of the Marabou. At the time I didn't know what they were, I'd never even heard of them, and so I was caught completely unaware, as if stepping on an ugly-mine. Boom! There they were, and the instant I saw them, the Marabou storks vaulted awkwardly to the top of my “God's creatures that are revolting” list.

I'll spare most of the hideous Marabou details for now, but for a sense of the experience, from the top down, the Marabou starts with a scab-encrusted bald head, and ends with horrible spindly legs, which it, well, squirts on. It behaves as it looks. When I saw the hideous pair, they were clucking their hideous giant meat-cleaver bills. They need hideous giant meat-cleaver bills because they eat carrion. I could almost see the stink wafting off them. Photos do not do the Marabou enough injustice. By comparison, the cockroach is just a determined little scamp. The Mockingbird is born to sing, and the Sarus to die of a broken heart, but in the middle the medusan Marabou lives only to assault the senses.

I enjoy watching wild elephants, especially when the juveniles do childish things like spraying all the other elephants with river water from their little fire hoses, or just smacking branches with their trunks, apparently just making noise for the sake of noise, like giant three-year-old kids. But the big elephants are a different story. They can be scary.

I was out in a jungle in north India and smelled elephants. I froze. Uh oh. They will smash a man flat, and it's not like a man can outrun an elephant. They probably are smarter than monkeys. I don't know that for sure, but elephants certainly are smart. Sometimes elephants steal homemade whiskey from villagers, who ferment rice in a special hut that is no match for packs of hormone-charged pachyderms with a hankering for moonshine. The marauding elephants get drunk and then go crazy trashing entire villages.

Drunken elephants have actually killed hundreds of people in India , and someday I plan to write about them, but now isn't the time—I didn't see a single elephant in Iraq. I didn't see any snakes either, but there were many thousands of birds.

Flying in Formation

A couple years back, I was driving to Key West and stopped on one of those islands at some kind of preserve. There were half a dozen old-timers with long scraggly beards talking about birds. Each of the men had camera outfits that cost like luxury cars. If they sold all their camera gear and pooled their cash, they probably could've bought a yacht and sailed away. I asked what they were up to, and they said they were heading out to photograph birds. I nearly asked to tag along, but my little camera wasn't up for it, so I just sleeked out on my own and photographed some birds as best I could. I see now from the quality of my bird photographs in Iraq that I should have intruded and tagged along. Photographing birds is much harder than I expected, as the blurry results here show. Well, at least I knew to focus on the eyes.

Should have tagged along. . . . Shamelessly photographing birds on a wire, but only the eye is in focus!

My first serious bird encounters in Iraq happened during my first helicopter trips over the countryside. The helicopters nearly always fly at least in pairs, and they zoom low over Iraq to avoid ground fire. Iraq 's greatest natural wealth might not be the pools of oil under the desert sands. Much of the country winds around and between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which makes for miles of fertile farmland, and wide swaths of marshland. As the helicopters approach the marshes, undulating blankets of birds rise into the air, so that by the time the helicopters are over the water, the pilots are forcing hard right or left turns, or pulling up fast to avoid the flocks.

Multiply these guys by 50 and you have a feathered color guard

I always started to think noooo as it seemed we were about to churn a hole through the flock leaving nothing but a trail of swirling feathers and bloody mist. But during my many helicopter trips, I only remember one time that we definitely hit an avian unfortunate. When the helicopter landed, it looked like a giant bug had smashed into the Blackhawk. The helicopters never seem to stop flying. When I lived in Mosul, I could tell if something was going on by all the helicopters racing in or out. The medevac helicopters always caused a moment of pause.

Strange dreams and flying machines

There are white balloons tethered around some of the major bases, balloons that do secret things, and though the enemy has tried to shoot them down, but apparently have not been successful. It's odd to think that we first used surveillance balloons during our own Civil War, and now here they are again, only this time there are no men perched in baskets peering through binoculars, swinging perilously below the balloons. Seeing the white balloon hovering in the sky above FOB Marez in Mosul, I imagined those intrepid observers, tossing down notes and sketches, and the men on the ground racing with the latest bird's eye update to the General's tent.

Winged escorts

One day, I walked into the TOC ( Tactical Operations Center: HQ) of the Deuce Four in Mosul, and saw that one of the unmanned spy planes was beaming down footage of one of the white balloons.
“Why is the shadow spying on our own balloon?” I asked.
“It broke off and is floating away,” answered a sergeant, chuckling. “Broke off in the wind!” The winds were gusting and the sky was dusty, and the tether apparently had snapped.
“Floating away! Which direction?”
“Syria,” I said, “Good grief, it's going to float over Syria and next thing you know there will be this giant international incident and Syria will accuse us of doing it on purpose.”
”We have helicopters on the way,” said the sergeant.
“Will they shoot it down?”
“Don't know.”
People started betting on whether they would shoot it down, and posing all kinds of hypothetical arguments this way and that, but for the longest time, it was just a white balloon being tracked by a spy plane, streaming video over the farms and countryside. Something called me away, and when I came back the live feed on the screen showed what looked like a charred balloon in a field, but I never got the chance to ask what happened.

Could be any lake in Florida …

When I arrived in Mosul, after months in Iraq, we had to eat outside because their dining facility had been blown up. Soldiers delivered hot chow which we dished out ourselves, and we'd eat standing around. I rested my paper plate on the hood of a Humvee. One day, I looked up and saw a bird's nest on the antenna patch on the roof of the TOC. I knew good and well that to make clear communications no birds should be nesting on an antenna. I figured there must be a bird lover high up in the chain of command.

“Doesn't that nest interfere with comms?” I asked a soldier.
“No, Sergeant Major Prosser disconnected that antenna so the birds could nest.”

I had met Prosser but didn't really know him yet, but as it turned out, CSM Prosser told me he had made new antenna arrangements so that the birds could keep the nest. I instantly liked him for it.

Heading Home: Pigeon flying to its nest under a bridge. Many Iraqis raise pigeons on their roofs.

Most were common sorts of birds, the kind I would see in Florida . Blue herons, egrets of various sorts, some species of dove that seem to be everywhere. I would not starve if it came down to it. There were plenty of sparrows and pigeons. The birds in the trees often woke me up with their songs; many of them come to life before twilight.

Birdsongs are like the sound of an old friend’s voice

I don't recall seeing many types of birds that I hadn't also seen in America . Speaking of America, by that time, the emails were flooding in so fast that I no longer could even open them all. That bothered me, but it was often a matter of going on a mission or reading messages. Missions almost always won the toss, but sometimes I would dive in and read messages.

I got emails from commanders and from grandmothers who hadn't heard from grandchildren serving in Iraq. I heard from wounded veterans, and new soldiers nervously asking for information prior to deploying. Kids, Australians, Italians, name it. Compressed in between were more than a few important business emails that I somehow had missed. When the first wave of publicity hit, I wasn't prepared for the undertow. I felt bad for not answering everything, wondering if I'd left a lot of people thinking I was being rude. There was little I could do.

Meanwhile, back in America, a friend was getting my mail and sorting and bundling it all for me. When I finally returned, there were stacks of mail to sift through, and I started reading. There were wonderful notes and letters from veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and many other places. There were more letters from grandmothers and grandfathers, written often with shaking hands, and I would slow down and read them carefully for any nuggets of wisdom that might have been cast upon the lines. Many brought a sort of lift that made me smile.

These birds always made me think something bad was about to happen.

I was particularly struck by a long, handwritten letter that came from a retired man. I read it carefully, and then read it again, and finally called a friend to talk about it. Finally I emailed the man asking him for his number, and I called him. The letter was long, heartfelt and written warmly as if we were old friends. He wrote about collecting sporting gear for our troops, and the troubles he faced getting that gear because so few people seemed to think about our troops unless they have a personal involvement like a family member or friend in the service.
Toward the end, he wrote the following:

Our soldiers are doing a courageous job and I for one am very proud of them.

Unfortunately I am very ashamed of many here at home. Most do not give our soldiers one moment of thought a day. The only time they do is when those soldiers do make the ultimate sacrifice as they use their numbers to back terrorists' demands.

I found your report on our soldiers who are fighting in Iraq to gain citizenship to be very uplifting. We need those who value what we once valued here. Very well titled “Welcome Aboard.”

He works with some folks in Wichita who have website where people donate sporting gear to troops: http://www.operationhomerun.com/. A lot of good things come out of Kansas .

There were cards heavy with grief from people who had lost loved ones in Iraq, or in other ways besides war. But others made me smile. I saved them and reckon that by about 2015, if nobody ever mails me again, I'll have read them all.

A common bird in Mosul.

I came across a card from Costa Mesa, California. It caught my attention because it had a beautiful red bird on the front. Inside the card was a kind note, and the author said she was the editor of a birding magazine. She inadvertently jarred me to look at some of my Iraq bird photos. While certainly not my best, the time spent taking them were some of the quietest and most peaceful of the past 10 months. Though I didn't go to a war to satisfy an ornithological quest, it occurred to me that perhaps the “birders” might like to see a few snapshots. And so, all of a sudden, within minutes, thanks to the author and her card from Costa Mesa , I was searching through bird photos while still reading letters.

Cute water birds

Notes from kids are some of the best. One letter came from a Devin who lives in Carmel, Indiana. Devin is in seventh grade and his mom kindly gave me permission to reprint his words. He wrote the winning essay for a Veteran's Day contest. The boy can write, that's for sure. Here is a small part of Devin's champion essay:
Every day during the Pledge of Allegiance I remember that the comfort of my home, school and community are being protected by those who are tirelessly working for my safety. As I address my challenges of the day, I am reminded that school and sport requirements are insignificant compared to the ultimate goal that our troops are constantly working toward.

Reading Devin's essay reminded me of the younger kids, the ones who are too young to write at all. There are literally thousands of pictures drawn by kids with fists full of crayons hanging on the troops' walls in Iraq . I've seen soldiers gathered around laughing at some of the cute things kids scrawl out.

Other letters cut to the sacrifices Devin wrote about, including one excerpted below which got separated from its envelope before I could ascertain the state it came from:
I heard about your blog from the parents of Sgt. Brandon Huff, Stryker Brigade, wounded in April, 2005 in Mosul. He's just now living independently from Walter Reed after losing his leg above the knee. . . . Thank you, God bless this world.

When I was recently invited to the Senate in Washington, I got to visit some wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I was told that some people stand outside protesting the war, saying horrible things to the wounded veterans. I didn't see any of that on my visit. It's one thing to protest the war—I sure don't like the war, and this is America after all—but it's another thing to scream obscenities at wounded veterans.

While I was still in Iraq, I'd also heard about the opposite kind of responses, from guys who had gone home on leave. They would talk about how random people in airports would approach them to say things like, “Thank you, soldier!” Guys would retell those stories until they were just squawking on like old Miner birds, and everyone around them would be like, “Hey, we've heard that story ten times already.”

More water birds in Baghdad

Many folks bring God into their letters. Combat veterans write to me often, and I especially enjoy letters from infantrymen such as this one:
. . . As a former combat infantryman who has more friends in Southwest Asia than he ought to, I am naturally hungry for any news not filtered by the major networks or newspapers. . . . I'm not a religious man, but I pray fervently that God protects and watches over both you and the soldiers of Deuce Four.

Other letters are more “in the moment,” like this one from Illinois:
Read an on-line article this morning (The Media Quagmire by Scott Johnson) in ‘The Weekly Standard.' You were referenced as a source of news to be worthwhile.

I agree with him. Don't know you or him but I admire what you are doing.

Du Quoin is a small town (6,000+) but we have lost Marines and Army personnel in Iraq. We may lose more before things are resolved.

I have great respect, admiration and confidence in what our people in uniform are accomplishing. I am thankful that someone like you is there to report on them and wish more people could read your reports (I'll be spreading the word to at least 30 people so they have access).

Stay Safe and “Semper Fi.”

On a dime.

For my first seven months in Iraq, I worked only for the next such letter or email of sincere appreciation, pecking through them like bread crumbs. They really do make a difference, and those funny things kids write really do bring flashes of joy to the troops.

A long and interesting letter from a Marine biologist in Pittsburgh said this:
That is what I see in the gap against evil and hatred. Good Americans and Good Iraqis. Standing to not let the hatred in and standing for right versus wrong.

After reading enough of these letters, I start imagining them in the regional dialects. Like the excellent letter I received from a woman in West Virginia:
. . . The ‘sincere faces' bringing us the news on TV seem to have no stomach for context. We get no clue from their ramblings that we are winning, or doing much of anything other than riding up and down the streets in big old vehicles getting the bejesus blown out of us. Our military is portrayed as victims, rather than the warriors and heroes they are.

May the maker of the stars keep all our heroes safe, and continue to bless this wonderful country.


Here's a letter from a retired Colonel and Vietnam veteran:
Our son commanded a Field Artillery battalion with the First Armored Division in Baghdad in 2003-2004. He does not like to talk much about his activities there, as I also did not after returning from a tour in Vietnam in 1966. Your dispatches give me a personalized view of the war which is much appreciated.

This flying bat was easier to focus on and photograph than were some of the stationary birds.

I've heard the blast of those cannons over and over and over, BOOM! BOOM! BOOM ! One night, there was incoming fire, or outgoing, or maybe it was a car bomb, I don't remember, but what I remember is there was a BOOM! and there must have been thousands of birds that suddenly launched from roost and flew into the night sky. I wondered how the helicopters avoided them at night.

I shot dozens of photos of these little Kingfisher-like birds, and not a single photo turned out.

There he goes! Missed again. . . .

There was a heartfelt and excellent letter from Wheaton, Illinois, which read in part:
. . . Please tell all of our soldiers they have my thanks and my prayers for their safety. We would be lost without our warriors.

I've rarely seen a greater truth written.

I used to call these birds “French Fry Catchers,” but I renamed these to “Saddam's Sparrows.”

Another card with birds was in the stack. This card had two Evening Grosbeaks , and it said the following:
I heard you on the Laura Ingraham radio show. . . . I am so impressed with what our soldiers are doing in Iraq and glad you are reporting it!

There are many women serving in Iraq, and I have seen them in combat situations and at least a couple of times that can I recall in actual combat. But since I spent most of my time with honest-to-god combat units—not combat support—I was mostly with fighters who were men. And so their wives and girlfriends would write, and so would their moms and grandmothers.

One request that I got over and over was, “Today is my grandson's birthday. He's 20, and I was wondering if you would give him a hug for me.” Like I'm really going to go hug man who has a sniper rifle, a machine gun, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and hand grenades in his room, and who, if he was one of my neighbors, had probably already killed men. Back when I was able to answer messages, I would reply with things like, “Not a million years! He's not your little boy any more. He's got guns and grenades beside his bed! He will never be a boy again. He's a man now.” The grandmothers always answered with some funny response, when it dawned on them that we are not at summer camp.

Doves in Iraq

The girlfriends and wives: I have since heard many stories of their stresses and travails at home with the kids and the bills and the medical problems and the incredible duress they must face alone—and the damn news: four troops were killed when . . . —and finally there is the knock on the door and she holds her breath and it's only someone delivering a package. Next week there is a knock and she holds her breath but it's only a rip-off artist trying to replace the roof. Next week there is a knock but she breathes easier because she has learned to deal with it, and she opens the door and her husband has no legs. Or he is horribly burned. Or he is dead.

One wife wrote in a card:
Mr. Yon,

It has just occurred to me that by the time you read this, Deuce Four will be home. What a happy group of wives we will be.

I am writing this note sitting at my computer, having just read Gates of Fire. It seems unbelievable that LTC Kurilla was shot. I know many Army wives who never want to hear the details of these events—I am certainly not one of them. . . . I often tell my husband that he has no idea how it feels to be left back here, picking up the pieces. . . .

Unfortunately, they didn't all come home, and some came home missing parts, but they fought well, and they won in Mosul, which is not something often reported on the nightly news. But now comes the first Christmas for many families who lost loved ones to this war.

I flew back to America to see the Redeployment Ball of the Deuce Four, and there met widows and women who had borne the awful task of telling other women that they were now widows, and a new dimension to this war was revealed.

I asked CSM Robert Prosser, the man who had defended the bird's nest on the antenna in Mosul, if I could spend some days with him and his wife near Tacoma, before the Ball. They took me in, and as I looked out their back windows into the beautiful yard that dropped down into a clear stream whose waters eventually return to the sea, CSM Prosser showed me the bird feeders, and the squirrels were trying to maraud them, and down in the creek the salmon would soon come to spawn. Prosser had fed the Iraqi birds each morning. There were a dozen mallard ducks scampering and flapping about in the chilly water. Prosser said that the Bald Eagles would soon come to his trees, and there they would perch to hunt from the stream.

Post Script

More than 150,000 troops are at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and stationed other places by land and sea. It's time to remember them, and at least send a letter. Care packages are great, but simple letters can be powerful. The Department of Defense has sorted through endless websites and charities, and does an excellent job organizing links to sites that allow people to help the troops. With a single click, people can donate books to troops, or computers, or frequent flier miles, or they can help wounded veterans or grieving families, or Iraqi children. There are so many options. http://www.americasupportsyou.mil/