KUWAIT, DAY 2 – This morning I turned in my passport and visa to the folks at Buildilng 511 here in the Hilton complex. They are with KBR, the private outfitter that handles logistics like this for the Army. I am assured that I’ll be able to fly to Mosul tomorrow (Saturday) in a C-30 transport.
I meet Col. Joseph Edstromj and Sgt. Hak Haskins later this afternoon. That means there is plenty of time to tell you about two special people.
One of them, Jason Snyder, teaches at Rochester Middle School, is an assistant coach of the 2004 Indiana state champion Lady Zebra basketball team and a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. The other is a young sergeant I’ve never seen. Both saw considerable action during the invasion of Iraq.
First, Snyder: On Tuesday he sent me an e-mail. My guess is that my sharing it with you might make him a little uncomfortable, but I’m going to do it anyway because it shows unassailable class and because I ardently hope to encounter more soldiers like him in Mosul. To be more accurate, I hope I’ll meet more people like him anywhere, period. His note follows. We had not met when he wrote it.
I just finished reading your article and am excited to hear that you are going to visit Iraq and spend some time with Hoosier soldiers. I was also glad to hear that someone is going to report about the everday activities of soldiers and maybe some of the positive things our troops are doing to help the Iraqi people.
As for your trip, I am sure that you will or have recieved intelligence briefings and the do’s and don’ts of being embedded with our troops. I would like to offer any assitance to you prior to and during your trip. I am not sure if you are in need of any equipment, clothing items, etc., but you are welcome to anything I have that you feel you will need.
As for safety, I am sure you will have many people assisting you and taking care of you, but I am a firm believer in going in with all the knowledge you can attain. From the sounds of it, you have experience in this area of journalism, so I am sure you will be successful in your mission.
I would be more than happy to meet with you prior to your departure and give you a heads up on what you might expect. Our unit had 48 Hours and Erin Moriarity embedded with us on our assault into Iraq, so I am also familiar with having journalists alongside soldiers. In fact it was her satellite phone that allowed to me to finally speak to my wife after six weeks without communication home, the call only lasted about two minutes but it was a wonderful gesture, her letting me borrow it late one night in Iraq. I would rather not discuss anything specific over e-mail for security reasons, but offer you any assistance I can give. Let me know if you need anything or if you would like to talk. Good luck on your ventures, and Godspeed.
1LT Jason Snyder
As a result of that note, we met at RHS, where the Lady Zebras had an open gym session, supervised by Snyder and head coach Tony Stesiak. I was to leave the next day and expected only a quick chat with Lt. Snyder. I got a lot more. He came into the gym with a military-issue backpack stuffed with items he thought I might be able to use. He apologized for not bringing more.
As Stesiak played basketball with the girls – displaying at least one nice move to the hoop and a couple of crisp passes - Snyder sat at courtside with me, a virtual stranger. The only thing he knew about me was that I work at the local paper. “I brought a few things you might be able to use,” he said.
The backpack contained a water bottle, mess kit cup, a tiny New Testament, two light sticks visible only to someone wearing night vision goggles, a floppy desert camouflage hat, two dull brown military-issue T-shirts, a pair of military socks, strap-on goggles, a high-tech sweat band, a flashlight with a blue lens, an electrical adapter that weighs only slightly less than a Volkswagen microbus, shower sandals, and a spiffy little fan that attaches to the side of a laptop computer, creating a comforting breeze.
He had two pages of hand-written notes on things he thought might be helpful: Bring extra batteries, don’t ever, ever, go barefoot over there, get name tags for everything. He said I should try to read a copy of the unit’s standard operating procedures, so if things get intense, I’ll know what the soldiers will be doing, and what is expected of me.
The power adapter is for my laptop. The socks worked pretty well for him in the desert, especially if worn with a pair of light liners. He suggested that I bring along a small box of laundry detergent, but said I could get that at a post exchange.
He spoke of sandstorms, and said to get a pair of goggles that fit over my glasses. “Read up military acronyms, if you are not familiar, as soldiers speak their own language,” he said.
“Try and get a hold of an infared beacon,” he said. “They attach to a nine-volt battery and can be seen through night vision goggles. When you have settled into your unit, make a plan in case you are separated on a mission. If they know you have an infared beacon, they can look for you that way. Iraqis do not have NVGs (night vision goggles) as widespread as we do, but they do have that capability, so plan as though they can see you as well.”
The little New Testament is part of his collection, which includes Bibles carried in WWII by his grandfather and in Vietnam by his father. “There’s about 10 of them,” he said. He said he didn’t want to preach, but “Everybody ought to have one of these.” The first page of the Bible is enscribed “PV2 Snyder Basic training Ft. Benning, GA June 1997-Aug 8 1997.” You can be sure I’ll take good care of it.
“It may seem funny for me to say something like this to an older guy,” he said before I left (I am old enough to be his father), “but I am proud of you for going over there.”
There was an extra bounce in my step as I crossed the parking lot.
He sent me this e-mail that night:
“I enjoyed the talk we had and hope it helps. I did forget one thing, tell the guys thanks for me and to keep up the good work. They are representing us Hoosiers and Americans well. And thanks to you for taking the time and the risk to see firsthand what is going on. Keep in touch and if you need anything, let me know. Good luck and stay safe.”
Perhaps that might seem a little corny to some. Not me.
Now for Sgt. Brian Wilson (no relation). He is an Ohio native and nephew of Bloomington residents Jane Holloway Daniels (RHS Class of 1971) and her husband Greg. When Jane learned of my pending trip, she almost immediately picked up the phone and called Brian, who after a particularly active tour of duty during the war that toppled Saddam Hussein is working as a recruiter in New Jersey. He would much rather be in Iraq.
Although we have never met, he was most generous with his time, a regular fountain of information.
The average Iraqi home “has three Ak-47” assault rifles, he said, so don't be especially nervous if you see civilians carrying them. He said the detonation cord used to ignite IEDs - improvised explosive devices in military lingo - is bright red. “If you see any red lines on the ground, you might want to tell somebody,” he said.
Wilson told me to wear pants with button pockets because there will be thieves about, and to avoid old shot-out tanks because the U.S. ammuntion that knocked them out is made of depleted uranium that could make me sick. He said to bring gloves, because touching metal that has been baking in the desert heat is uncomfortable. Also: don’t throw candy to kids from the front of a convoy because they dive for it and can get run over; don’t drink Iraqi water.
Never show the bottom of your feet to an Iraqi as that is an insult. Don’t wave with your left hand because that is the one they use for personal hygene. The right is for eating. (I’m a lefty, so I’ll have to be careful about this.)
He warned me to “Stay close to the Humvee,” and, “Don't let the people surround you.” He said children tend to swarm around soldiers. “If they start disappearing, get close to cover because something might be about ready to happen,” he said. Initiating conversation with Iraqi women is taboo. He said to make sure to get enough salt and to develop a clear understanding of the ground rules in the event of action: “Know what they want you to do if the shooting starts.”
Wilson had a lot to say about foot care. He recommended Gold Bond Medicated Foot Powder, clean socks, and Vagicil. The Vagicil will knock out fungus. The notion of rough and ready American soldiers fighting for freedom on feet steeped in a yeast infection remedy was worth a couple of good laughs, of course, but he spoke from experience. “I was too embarrassed to buy it myself in person,” he said. “My wife helped me out with that.”
He made sure I had a bullet-proof vest. (I do, thanks to a loan from Fulton County Sheriff Roy Calvert.)
And, he volunteered to loan me an extra helmet of his. It is one of the new lightweight Kevlar models, with a sophisticated strap and a camouflage cover. Behind the camouflage cover he has written the names of the places he served in over here. They are Iskandarjyah, Fallugah, Kuwait City, Qatar, Baghdad, Habbaniya, Doha, Latifihag, Maamudiyah and Rashid. It showed up right on schedule two days before I left.
He e-mailed a note:
“Just write down all the towns you visit and I would be glad to add them to the helmet to show its second trip over seas ... it brought me good luck and I hope it does the same for you.
The cover goes on if you want. It’s just velcro. So have fun and good luck and I hope to meet you when you come back. Let me know if you need anything else and take care of my baby.”
I was struck by the way both men wanted to talk about the military and Iraq. Clearly, it had made a big difference in their lives.
These two guys didn’t have to offer me anything. The unsolicited gear they loaned a stranger could make an awful lot of difference. The friendship they extended is of the rarest and most valuable sort: Unvarnished.