Goldschmidt Family Home PageLast updated on May 18, 2007
Ari Goldschmidt joined the US Army reserves in 2004. While away at Boot Camp, he told his parents Michele and Bob Goldschmidt that he misses everyone and would love to keep in touch with everyone. Below the introductory section are the letters Ari sent home during his active duty posting to Iraq, starting in September 2006.
Ari's Current Status - May 2007
Ari is attached to the 399th Combat Support Hospital (CSH), in the role of combat communications specialist. So in the end, despite years of protest, Ari is becoming a geek. Just like his old man. Maybe there is some justice in the world after all, even in the Army. Or maybe that is just Irony.
In early February 2007, Ari's unit was transfered to the Al Asad airbase in Anbar Province, Iraq. This is in the western part of the country, about half-way between Bagdad and the Syrian border. The purpose of the unit transfer is to build a new hospital facility on the base. The base currently houses a hospital run by the Navy, but central command wanted additional medical facilities there, so the 399th CSH is building an Army-run hospital there, and a different CSH unit is replacing the 399th at their old facilities in Mosul. I wonder why?
Because of the transfer, Ari has not had much access to the Internet, and has had no time to write. There is a lot of construction and organizaton activity going on at the moment, and Ari is off-line for a while. At least as far is letters and pictures home is concerned. He misses his creature comforts, and he is stressed out, but he is fine.
Ari came home for leave in late March 2007, and a good time was has by all.On April 13, 2007, Ari was promoted to Sergeant after turning some of the highest points scores for that round of promotion.
In early May, Ari was appointed Jewish Lay Chaplain for Al Asad base. See the letter below.
I will update his status again as soon as there is something to update. Bob / Dad.
Here are Ari's email addresses, good until further notice:
And now, the story is Ari's to tell ....
Hello friends and family at home. In this letter, I would like to apologize for my most recent one [[Dad's Note: that letter was not posted publically due to the sensitive and critical nature of its content]], which was not publicly posted for obvious reasons. I did however get a lot of feedback on it. It was not my intention with that email to sound whiny or complain needlessly of the trials and tribulations of war and existing within the TF (Task Force) 399th CSH (Combat Support Hospital) while deployed in Iraq. It was, in fact, my purpose to truly explain what it is like, without sugar coating it in any way. The news that everyone receives back home is modified to make things look good. It is not the whole truth, and the only way to know what really goes on behind the scenes in Iraq is to get a first hand explanation from someone who has nothing to gain by making it something other than what it is. This is what I was trying to do with my most recent letter.
I will admit I am a little frustrated at times with all of the needless run-arounds and bullshit that one has to put up with in this unit. It is not only this unit, it is the army and military as a whole, especially while at war, but medical units take the forefront of problems such as what my unit has been experiencing. There is a lack of discipline here that you would not find in an infantry or armored division. In fact, we just had a unit-wide mandatory attendance meeting about exactly this subject. The Commander, Chief of Staff, Chief Doctor, and Chaplain all spoke about safety, well-being, looking out for each other, and the dangers of substance abuse such as huffing. Huffing [[abuse of inhalents and volatile solvents]] has become a major issue for the 399th, and we were recently forced to evacuate one of our soldiers out of theatre to Landstuhl, Germany because he almost died from inhalant overdose. It was his second or third offense, and they were taking no more chances. He is gone for good and will never return to duty in this unit.
In total, we have had approximately 37 incidents of illegal action since we have arrived in theatre. Many of those ended up being varying degrees of Article 15's (extra duty and forfeiture of rank and pay). Some of them are Article 92's, which is the direct disobeying of a general order. This can result in punishment as high as court marshal and jail time. Can you imagine going straight from Iraq to Ft. Leavenworth? The majority of these more serious cases are waiting on direct review from Lieutenant General (3 stars) Chiarelli, the core commander (the higher of our higher).
By now, our unit is well known throughout Iraq as having a problem with discipline and illegal actions. In my most recent letter (not posted), I was simply stating that one of the causes for this is our lack of reliable command staff. But you won't ever hear this side of the story. I simply wanted to bring to light the truth behind the scenes because the newspapers will avoid it like the plague. If you don't believe me, read it for yourself. The Boston Globe just posted a front page story about the TF 399th CSH. It is a very long article describing our mission, and what it is like living in Iraq as part of a CSH. I was personally interviewed by the reporter, and actually have a quote in the article. I have yet to read it, but many people have told me I am in it. Don't worry, it has nothing to with the issue above; I was simply talking about my job and my tiny little niche within the larger clockwork of the unit. Apparently, I said something interesting, because he chose to publish my words on the front page of a major news paper.Boston Globe article on the 399th CSH, with Ari in it. Link to a PDF document containing the Boston Globe article
I love you all,
----- AriReturn To Table of Contents
Alright, this letter will be more about me and less about my unit. Working in the TOC, one gets very little free time. I have had only one day off since arriving in Mosul, and I currently clock in 10 to 11 hours or more every single day of the week. After a while, this can become very stressful and one needs to find a way to relieve that stress. Everyone does this in different ways. I myself have been doing a multitude of extra curricular activities down at the gym. In addition to traditional work outs consisting of running on the tread mill and lifting heavily, I have joined a boxing class and 2 grappling tournaments since I have been here.
I once wrote about the first grappling tournament. Well the same people put together a second a few weeks ago and I joined that one as well. Last time, there were 6 people in my 140-160 pound weight class. This time there were only three, including my barely 140 lb self. The first guy I wrestled was some short, stocky, Asian guy of middle years, and by middle, I mean 45. Everyone remembered me from last time and told me to be nice and go easy on him. To his credit, he knew how to wrestle and was quite strong for an older guy. Still, I had him in the rear-naked choke and tapping out within 34 seconds.
I waited around for about a half hour before they started on the next round, which turned out to be the finals in my weight class since there were so few of us. I had met this guy a couple of days ago and he seemed nice enough. He was only 5-10 lbs bigger than me and he told me that he had never wrestled before in his life. Why he chose to enter a grappling tournament with no experience, I don't know. He had a lot of heart though and no matter how hard I tried, he wouldn't tap out. I did toss him all over the mat though. He forced me to expend a lot of energy and at the end of the five minutes (1 minute 1st round and 2 minutes 2nd and 3rd rounds) I was exhausted. I did win 32-0 on points though, so it wasn't anywhere near close.
Now, I haven't been to a wrestling practice in 3 to 4 years, and I'm not used to expending that kind of energy. After it was over, I began to get bubbles in my chest as if I was going to throw up. I had already signed up for the open (any weight) tournament though, and my pride was not about to let me back out of it. I hoped that I would be feeling a little better by the time all of the other weight classes finished, but I wasn't. When the open tourney began I stood up and got myself ready. Throughout both tournaments I had consistently been in the first match of every round, and I was expecting that tradition to continue. So, when they called two names and neither of them was mine, I was pleasantly surprised. I could use a little more time to rest. When the next match began, it was the same story and this continued for 2 or 3 more times until the final match of the first round was called.
By process of elimination, I assumed that I must be scheduled for this match but after they called two other people's names, they looked at me and said I had a bye. The first guy they called for this match was the champion of the 180 lb weight class. He was a ridiculously muscled African American man standing about five feet nine inches in height. I wish I had a picture (not allowed to take pictures without a memorandum) because he had the body of a Greek god, and couldn't possibly have had more than a 3 or 4 percent body fat percentage. He had walked through the competition in his weight class too, winning his first match by tap-out in the first round. The guy he wrestled in the second round had to be dragged off the mat; he didn't tap out when he should have and they don't call it a sleeper hold for nothing. His finals match should have been a really good one because the other guy had also destroyed his competition. But, he controlled the whole match and forced that guy to tap out as well. At least he made it to the second round.
So, when he stepped onto the mat for the open tournament, everyone naturally felt sorry for whatever poor sap he wound end up killing this time. Perhaps his intended opponent was scared, or perhaps he had just left, but when the announced his name he was no where to be found. Because I was the only person that wasn't wrestling in this round, I was the natural replacement. Less than one minute after being told I had a bye, they told me I was up. My friends let out an almost unanimous, "NO!", and from the crowd, I heard shouts of, "Don't go!" and "He'll die!" Honestly, I thought it was a decent possibility. I knew I had no chance against a man-beast like this guy but I was far too proud to back down and let fear for my life (exaggeration) prevent me from doing the thing I love most.
I was scared shitless and I could still feel the bubbles in my chest, but I stood up and marched onto the mat anyway. I told my supporters that I would be happy with making it past the first round with all my limbs intact. As we shook hands I could see a certain level of annoyance in his face. He looked the same as I would have if they forced me to wrestle a girl. He was embarrassed to even waste a few minutes of his life wrestling me.
The whistle blew and we tied up. He was SO strong! I realized immediately that tying up with him was a mistake but I couldn't get away. His grip was just too powerful to overcome. He pulled me to him and wrapped me up in a bear hug. I let out a grunt of pain and fell straight to the mat. All my strength drained out of me and I had no power left to resist his iron grip. Luckily, I fell onto my back, keeping that vital area away from him. Once on the ground, he let go of the bear hug and worked for something new. That's when I saw my chance. I was smaller and faster than him, and I shrimped (unarmed combatives term) out from under his considerable bulk and quickly got behind him. The crowd cheered because all of the sudden I had the dominant position and being the major underdog, they were all rooting for me.
I crawled up his body, put the hooks in with my legs, and went for the rear naked choke because it's the easiest and most reliable choke I know. I sunk it in deep and began to squeeze but it just didn't have the effect it would have on someone closer to my size. Instead of tapping out, he just stood up, carrying me up into the air with him. All of the sudden I was hanging onto his neck and back like a monkey. I tried to arch my back and squeeze, but I could only do so much because I didn't have any leverage up in the air as I was.
We continued like this for a while, me trying my hardest choke him out, him trying to shake me off. Eventually, he must have realized that I was holding on for dear life and was not about to let go because he gave up trying to break my lock. Instead, he jumped straight up into the air and hit the ground hard, landing on his back, or shall I say mine. It looked like something straight out of a WWF fight night and all of the wind was crushed out of me. Of course, I let go at this point. While I recovered, he stood up and tried to gain a better position but just then the round ended. It had been one hell of a first round and we were both exhausted already.
They gave us a few moments to rest and then we started in for the next round. The look of annoyance was gone from his face. It had been replaced by eyes full of daggers and a look of sheer fury. I was making him look bad, and he was pissed.
The second round went much the same as the first, and he crushed me to the mat with a killer bear hug of destruction. But once I was there I was able to wiggle my way out and battle back and forth with him for while. Towards the end of the round, I managed to sink the hooks in and get a deep sleeper hold again. I tried to hold him down, but he was just too strong, and once again, he simply stood up. After attempting to shake me off for a few moments he quickly realized that jumping up in the air and landing on me was far more effective. This time though, I was ready for it and braced myself as both his weight, and my own, landed hard on the mat. It worked and I wasn't dazed. I threw the leg hooks in and arched my back. I now had the leverage and he had been getting weaker by the moment even when we were standing up. I knew it was only a matter of time, and I felt victory closing in. But just then they tapped us and told us the round was over. I was very upset. A few more seconds in that position and I would have had him; everyone knew it.
When we began the third round, both looks of fury and annoyance were gone from my opponent's face, replaced only by sheer exhaustion. I must have been tired too because when the round started I took a few steps back and threw up in my mouth. We had really been going at each other, and both of us were at the very end of our energy. The score was 12-10, him. I don't have any idea how it got that way and truly didn't even realize it was that close until I looked at the score board.
Alas, I was now too tired to move his much larger bulk, and he pretty much just laid on me the entire third round. Towards the end, I did manage to get out, get around behind, and put him in a sleeper hold one more time. He no longer had the energy to carry me into the air and that worked to my benefit, but I didn't have the energy to squeeze hard enough. There were only about 15 seconds left and he knew it. He just held on and toughed it out till the end, winning the match 16-14.
The crowd cheered, and afterward everyone said that they should have given it to me just because I was so much smaller. Those are the rules though, and it was my fault for entering the open tournament in the first place. I was just happy to have survived and actually come close to beating him. I was the only one that day who he did not force to tap out. I was very content with the result. Besides, I had no energy left to wrestle another match anyway. I could barely walk, and had to hang my head over a trash can for a while before I felt good enough move. My friends carried my stuff and walked slowly to the DFAC (dining facility). They all got dinner but just the thought of food made me sick. Eventually, I hobbled my way outside and let out a torrent of vomit. I did feel a lot better afterward.
I love wrestling though. It helps me to expend pent-up frustration, and it's nice to let everyone around you know that you are much tougher you look. The respect is great; I practically have my own fan club now. People recognize me everywhere I go and comment on my matches all the time. Someone even called me "Mini-Diesel" (as in Vin Diesel). I guess I just appreciate the attention and recognition.
I love you all,
----- AriReturn To Table of Contents
Hello to all you friends and family out there! I had intended to combine all of my individual sports exploits into one letter, but just writing about that grappling tournament in my last one became too long. So, this one will be about boxing.
Now, wrestling is my forte. I have many years of experience in high school, and a little bit of coaching experience afterward. I have never before done boxing, and it is a completely new experience for me. I only started doing it because the communications NCOIC (non-commissioned officer in charge), SFC (Sergeant First Class) Robinson, was starting a class down at the gym. He encouraged me to go, and I was a friend of his since I used to be in the communication department. The class takes place every Wednesday and Sunday from 6 p.m. till whenever. One did not have to be in our unit to go either, anyone could. SFC Robinson has been in the army for over thirty years; fourteen of those were spent on the Army boxing team. That is quite a feat because you don't stay on a team like that unless you are winning and it takes a lot to win for fourteen years straight. He was an Olympic caliber boxer and almost went once (to the Olympics), but didn't because of some complication or another.
As wrestling is my first love, boxing is his, and being in his fifties now, he is too old to compete. So instead, he coaches. His class is a very good one. We start off with light exercises to warm up and stretch out. Then we do a very heavy abdominal workout that usually lasts about fifteen or twenty minutes. And finally, we begin boxing. Some people start off on the mitts or shadow box, and everyone else jump ropes while they wait their turn. I haven't been able to go to class as often as would like because I often have to work. I make it down there as often as possible though.
Now that we have been here (in Iraq) a while, SFC Robinson wanted to put together a Saturday night smoker. He wanted to actually have weigh-ins and match people up for a fight night with a ring and everything. The majority of us had never boxed before, but this would show how much improvement a couple of months of practice can make. He looked all over and eventually found a real boxing ring over on our sister FOB, Marez. It was a brand new floor ring and had never been put together. No one was using it, and the gym over there was actually trying to get rid of it. SFC Rob and his crew spent a month of their free time putting it together and finally had it ready for our smoker on Saturday, December 30th 2006.
There were a total of five bouts and I was in the second. I weighed in the day before at 137 lbs (tiny I know). The closest guy to my weight was 152 lbs. He had fifteen pounds on me but that was the best we could do. In grappling I wouldn't care about that weight difference, but I have to admit I was a little scared. Boxing was new to me and I thought I was going to get my ass kicked.
I was in the red corner and my coach for the night was LTC (Lieutenant Colonel) Burton, our XO. He used to box. He told me that when the bell rang, my opponent was going to go crazy and swing away. He told me to be careful to not get sucked into a swinging match. He told me to use my jab and let him come to me. "Don't chase after him," he said.
He was right too. At the start of the match, my opponent swung like crazy. I just jabbed, backed up, and blocked. I took a lot of hits, but because I was fighting defensively, none of them were good or did any real damage. However, it looked like I was getting my ass kicked and I heard a lot of boos from the crowd. There were a lot of people there. The ones that didn't know me were yelling, "Come on Red, do something!" From the people that did know me, I heard calls of, "He's too small!" and "He'll get hurt!" People always under estimate me.
I waited out the first minute to minute and a half of the first round, letting him hit me but preventing him from getting any good hits. He was getting tired. I waited till his barrage of blows slowed down just a little bit, and then BAM! I hit him with a left and right and all of the sudden he was lying in a heap at my feet. The crowd went crazy! Everyone thought I was getting destroyed, but all of the sudden my opponent was on the ground and could barely stand up. He had gotten over confident because I wasn't returning his punches and let his guard drop just a little. I made him pay for it. Even I was surprised though. After all, I had barely touched him up until this point. I must have hit him really hard. His face was covered in blood and he looked dazed as SFC Robinson, who was the referee, gave him a 10 count.
He wasn't out yet though, and after the count we charged back in and went at it again. We traded blow for blow for the rest of that round, but I got the better of it and at the end of the two minutes I went to my corner feeling pretty good about myself. I was controlling the match and fighting it the way I wanted too.
We had thirty seconds of rest in our respective corners before the start of the second round. I sensed blood now and wanted to finish him off. I went in for the kill and began hammering away at him. I abandoned my old plan in favor of just hitting him over and over. But he had recovered in our few seconds off and began swinging back. He was taller and stronger than me, and in an all out brawl he would probably win. I did the damage the first round by being smart and using my speed and wits. I'm not sure why I abandoned that tactic since it was working. I ended up taking quite a few good hits that round and was given two standing 8 counts. One more that round and I would have lost the match. I felt fine but the ref did them anyway. He told me later that if one takes three good shots in a row without returning anything, he had to do it. I got plenty of hits in as well but my opponent definitely had the upper hand that whole round. By the end, we were both covered in blood. It was without a doubt the bloodiest fight of the night.
The round ended and as I walked back to my corner, I knew I had lost it. As they cleaned me up, LTC Burton was yelling at me. "You have this guy," he said, "settle down and fight it your way. That right hand is there!" At that moment I realized that I had been holding it. I had been cocking my right hand back but never using it. I also realized that in the first round I had taken my time and made my few shots really count. In the second, I had hit him far more but they weren't as effective and I had taken a lot of heavy shots in return. I decided that I should return to my original tactic.
When the bell rang for the final round, he charged at me without abandon, swinging away with the left and right over and over. I think after winning the last round, he sensed blood this time. I blocked, jabbed, backed up, and took it for just a few seconds until that initial barrage was over. Then he dropped his guard for just one second and I slammed him dead in the face with I don't know how many punches. He fell back against the ropes and dropped like a ton of bricks to the canvas. He was covered in blood again and completely dazed. SFC Rob said he was done and declared knock-out. It was only 15 to 20 seconds into the third round. It all happened so fast! But all of the sudden it was over, and I had career boxing record of 1-0 by T.K.O.
Afterward, I got a lot of compliments on the match. Most of them asked me how much bigger he was than me, which meant they had expected me to loose. People always underestimate me and I love showing them up. I get comments all over the FOB now. Between the grappling, and now the boxing, everyone knows who I am. It's actually a pretty good feeling. SFC Robinson told me that if my head swells up any more he is going to have to fly a space ship into outer space to pull me back down to earth. I'm not really as cocky as I let him believe though.
He keeps trying to get me to come to practice more often too. He says that I'm a "gladiator", and that if he had three months of hard practice with me, "nobody would be able to handle me."
For some pictures of the boxing match, please go here.
I love you all,
----- AriReturn To Table of Contents
So the story is that it has been far too long since my last letter home. That's what people have been telling me at least. In fact, this will be my first email from my new base of operations, and temporary home, Al Asad. It's amazing how different two bases in Iraq can be, because life here in western Iraq is much different from life up in northern Iraq. The difference begins with the general lay of the land and surrounding country side. FOB Diamondback was separated from Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, by no more than a single concrete wall. This meant that there was close to two million Iraqi civilians living within a few mile's radius. There were countless places for insurgents to hide and blend in with the average population. As a result, our FOB was mortared multiple times a week and there were fire fights out in the city on a daily basis.
Here in Al Asad, there is no city. We are truly in the desert. The base is built into a basin which the Euphrates River ran through many thousands of years ago. It is surrounded on all sides by a hundred foot high wall of rock and dirt called the Wadi. There are guard towers posted on top of the wall all around the city, and beyond that impenetrable defense, is 7 miles of straight desert. Combine that with the Cobra assault choppers that constantly circle the base during all hours of the day and night, and this huge FOB of Al Asad becomes an un-attackable defensive position that is just as safe as any city within the confines of the Greater 48 states [[ Dad - I guess he means the US of A ]]. So, all of you friends and family out there, there is no need to worry. While Mosul got hit regularly, and the rounds most often fell close to where I lived and worked, Al Asad has only been attacked 3 times in the last year. Also, up north (in Mosul) they would have all the time they needed to plot trajectories and take careful aim, making them quite accurate with their indirect (mortar) fire. Here, the towers will see them as they race across the desert in their trucks to get within firing range. They have no time to stop and take aim because if they do, the Cobras will be on them in seconds. They would have much difficulty hitting the broad side of a barn, so to speak. If the mortar rounds even land close to the FOB, it is sheer luck. Don't worry about my safety, I'm as safe as safe can be here.
Unfortunately, the lack of mortar attacks and other imminent threats is pretty much the only up side to this base. Stationed here along with my unit are close to 15,000 others soldiers. The majority are marines, but the navy, army, and air force also have strong representations. This makes the FOB very crowded. We have 1 PX (Post Exchange, store) and because of the massive numbers of soldiers, they run out of the most basic of things. Imagine not being able to buy something as simple as toothpaste because every brand is completely sold out.
We have one gym. It's new, and has nice equipment, but it's smaller than the one on Diamondback. Now, Diamondback had about one sixth as many soldiers. Even there the gym could get packed during peak hours. Here, it is packed at 4:30 in the morning and stays that way till almost midnight. My first time there, it took me fifteen minutes just to get a bench press, and that was while working in with a couple of beastly Marines twice my size and strength.
There are a couple of huge DFACs here with enough space to serve an army. The problem is that, in addition to the army, every other branch of the military minus the coast guard is here too. Add to that close to six thousand local nationals and civilian contractors, and the dining areas become a major claustrophobe. One isn't permitted to take food out like we were in Mosul, so it's a constant struggle to find seats. If you go in with a group of more than three to four people you probably won't be able sit together.
The MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation center) is much bigger than the one we had in Mosul. It has sixteen VOIP phones and about 30 - 40 computers. Even that though, isn't nearly enough to adequately support the number of people stationed on this immense base. The staff there knows this, and so every half hour they will put out a sign up sheet for the phones and computers to be used during the next half hour. One usually has to already be waiting in line for the roster in order to sign his name to it. That means that at the very best, you would have to wait a half hour just to get your thirty minutes of phone time with your family.
Alright, so maybe I shouldn't be complaining so much. This is, after all, a war zone and the fact that I get to call my family at all or eat hot meals under a covered shelter is a great improvement over recent wars. It's a great improvement over the start of the war. I guess I was just spoiled up north. Mosul was a much nicer station, if more dangerous.
However, the mission dictates that we set up a brand new Level-3 hospital out here in western Iraq. We can do far more good here. Al Asad may be safe, but the province itself is very dangerous. The cities all of you back home hear about, like Ramadi and Fallujah, are very close by. Many casualties come out of those areas and the surrounding country side. On top of that, the majority of patients arriving at the current navy Level-2 hospital here are US military. Up north, we had a few; towards the end it even became a regular thing, but most of our patients were Iraqi army, police, and even civilians. Out here in the western Iraq, US patients come in multiple times a day. Until my last couple weeks in Mosul, we had only had two US patients die in our hospital. Here, it happens almost every other day.
The code word for it is "fallen angel," when a US soldier comes in DOA (dead on arrival). It's a term I am already getting tired of hearing, and our hospital isn't even operational yet.
I love you all,
----- AriReturn To Table of Contents
Life is progressing as normal. I returned to Iraq from leave about two weeks ago and have since settled back into an everyday routine. Right now I am working eight hours a day, seven days a week. This is really quite nice and I count my blessings because I know there are plenty of people around here that put in between ten and fourteen hours. I used to do that, when we were still up in Mosul, but here in Al Asad there is no need. Working only eight hours a day gives me plenty of time to accomplish my extra curricular activities such as working out, boxing, calling my fiancÚ, and studying endlessly for the promotion board I just completed.
In the Army active duty world, it is a regular thing for promotion boards to be run. One cannot reach the rank of Sergeant or Staff Sergeant (E-5 and E-6) without first passing the board. The board consists of a panel of 5 senior enlisted members from the unit, led by the President of the Board who is the Command Sergeant Major (CSM) of the Battalion. There can be many different standards required, and these are based upon what the CSM expects, but a few things are always the same. The five members verbally quiz you on just about every military topic imaginable, from the chain of command, to the universal code of military justice, to first aid, to map reading, and much, much more. In our board, we covered almost every section in the 212 page Army Study Guide. We needed to have a very extensive amount of knowledge.
Now, I was on leave and gone for three full weeks including travel, and the list of topics to be covered came out a few days after I had left. When I got back to Iraq, I was really far behind. A sergeant in the unit held a nightly class to help us study since none of us reserve soldiers had ever done a promotion board before. I thought I was hopelessly lost when I went to the class and the other soldiers called out answers to questions I couldn't even comprehend. To catch up, I had to really buckle down and study hard. The entire next week I would get up an hour early and study before work. Then, I would study during any free moment I could grab while at work. I would have my co-workers quiz me. After work, I would go back to my room and study some more. By this time I was usually extremely tired of studying, so I would take a half hour to forty-five minute nap. Then I would get up and go to the promotion board class. Finally, when class was over, I would return to my room and call my fiancÚ. And guess what, she would quiz too.
By the time the promotion board came around, I could nail 90% of the questions from over a hundred pages of topics. I was still nervous though, when I stepped in front of the board. I came prepared with my body armor, Kevlar, M-16, first aid kit, full combat load (210 rounds), gas mask, and many more, smaller items. The beginning was a little rocky. The moment I stepped foot through the door, the CSM called "Gas, Gas, Gas!". I put my mask on fast enough, but the seal was bad and they told me later that the whole thing was lopsided. But when they sat me down and started the more conventional part of the test, the endless stream of questions, I settled down and started hitting them one after another. I knew I was doing well because they started to smile. After successfully answering every question from the first two board members, the third tried to stump me. Since I had answered all of his normal questions already and without difficulty, he decided to ask me what the FM (field manual) for drill and ceremony was. I answered easily with, "FM 3-21.5". Since that didn't stump me, he gave me a look as if to say, 'ok fine' and asked me what it was originally called. Without hesitation, I spilled out 'The Blue Book'. It was the first book on drill and ceremony, and was originally written in the late 1800's by a former Prussian officer by the name of Baron Von Streuben. It paved the way for many field manuals to follow." Needless to say, the look on his face this time was dumbfounded. I don't think he expected me even know what it was called, let alone its entire history.
I went on to finish the board, missing maybe 2 or 3 questions the entire time. That's not bad considering each board member asked 8-10. Directly after it was over, they called us all back in. There were six of us, including two sergeants going for their staff sergeant. We all got promoted. I realized later they had always intended to promote anybody with the balls just to go in front of the board and the dedication to study for it. There was no need for me to have worried as much as I did. It paid off though in the end though. I tied for first with one other soldier. We both had the almost perfect scores of 149 out of 150. He had already won a Soldier of the Quarterly competition though, so they selected me to represent the unit at the 3rd MEDCOM (senior medical unit in theatre and our higher head quarters) Soldier of the Year board. At some point we should both be traveling to Baghdad for the competition. There are no official dates yet, but we are thinking it will take place sometime around June or July. Don't worry, I will be safe. I will be on a FOB just like I am now.
Unfortunately, it's going to take a couple of months for me to get my promotion orders. By June I should finally be wearing my stripes. I have been waiting a long time for this.
I love you all,
----- AriReturn To Table of Contents
As of yesterday, the 10th of May, I officially became the Command Jewish Lay Leader for the air base of Al Asad. I have been working towards this goal for many months now, but yesterday the paperwork finally came back finished and signed by the FOB Commanding General. I have been actively fulfilling this role for the past 5 weeks, but the finalized appointment of position did not take place until yesterday.
This means that in addition to my standard responsibilities as a soldier in the Task Force 399th Combat Support Hospital, I am responsible for facilitating Jewish services every week for the few but still important Jewish soldiers and marines here on base. I hold services every Friday evening in a small room in the back of the Chapel. We light Shabbat candles, run though many of the standard songs and prayers, and then sit down and discuss the week's Torah portion. I always read it before hand and come up with a small drash to lead them through. After that, we do the blessings over the wine and bread and enjoy a few minutes of Shabbas relaxation while a war rages on around us. Also, if a Jewish Chaplain were to visit Al Asad, I would automatically become his assistant for the duration of his stay.
One thing I miss though is Challah, as it cannot be found here in-theatre. We make do on standard white loaves of bread which the dining facility makes special for us. We used to be able to serve wine for Kiddush, but that right has recently been taken away. We only had one cup a night to split between all of us, but the Commanding General recently decided that only official military Chaplains would be able to administer sacraments, and that includes wine. We now conduct our blessing over grape juice.
The average number of people that attend Friday night services is 5, including myself. Since none of us is a great singer, I usually bring my Ipod with speakers and play a recording of our favorite songs through that. It gives us something to sing along with.
With the exception of the week's Torah portion, and the occasional holiday, every week is essentially the same. We begin at 7 p.m. and end when we feel like it, usually around eight. I usually try to switch up the songs and prayers a little bit though, and still keep some semblance of structure. One week we did do something very special ....
There is a real live oasis here on Al Asad called Abraham's Well. It is called such because it is said that he stopped there and rested his caravan for a few days on his journey to Israel. One Friday night, in lieu of services, we went there and visited it. We had to have a Chaplain give us the tour because only they have the right to do so. You have to follow the path and go no farther than the marked off areas because there are still some unexploded ordinances hidden in the brush off the trail. Still, it was amazing to think that I was now standing on the exact same ground as the forefather of my religion did thousands of years ago.
The surrounding desert is barren and desolate, with very little natural life of any kind, but the oasis is vibrant and teaming with creatures of all shapes, sizes, and colors. An underground spring feeds hundreds of huge palm trees and supplies water to a small pond and marshy area. Small fish swim under the surface of the crystal clear water, while water fowl and other birds chirp and squawk above it. It truly is a site to behold.
If I am still here during the high holidays, I intend to take my little congregation back down to the oasis to observe that holiest time of our faith, in the holiest of places.
Here are some pictures from Abraham's Well.Return To Table of Contents
There are a lot of things one would expect to experience during a year's stay in Iraq. Thunder, lightning, rain, snow, cold weather, and even a tornado warning weren't among them. But all of that happened during the winter, and the winter is now over. The last couple of weeks have been more than enough to remind me that we are in a lonely, dry, and extremely desolate desert.
First off, it had been hot. We started off the beginning of May with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The weather report said it stayed between 100 and 103, but I am more inclined to believe the thermometer posted outside our bathroom. Even though it was in the shade it averaged around 110 degrees and showed numbers as high as 117 on one day. Either way, it was hot. Simply walking from place to place during my every day activities caused beads of sweat to stream down my face.
Unfortunately, the worst is yet ahead of us. In Iraq, the month of August is the hottest, and in Al Asad it traditionally averages around 125 degrees.
The heat isn't the only thing that proves this is a true desert unlike any in the United States though. Besides the fact that there is very little that grows or is green here, the traditional critters of the desert live here in force. Yesterday, one of my friends was taking down a tent that we had used as a reception area for the past couple months. It was no longer needed as we had acquired a new hard stand building for the same purpose. When he lifted up the flap to undo the first stake, a black scorpion about two inches long came running out and ran under a nearby conex. It wasn't the only thing that went running though, as my friend came bursting into the TOC (my place of work) at top speed, screaming the whole while. He was terrified, but I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever heard and wished I had seen it.
That wasn't the only crazy thing that happened that day though. Shortly after the event with the scorpion, we got hit with our first major sand storm. We've had strong winds before, and any wind in Iraq means you'll be pulling sand out of your eyeballs for days, but this was a wind of a different sort. It came out of nowhere. One minute it was calm and the sky was a bright blue, the next we were choking on sand and the sky was a dark brown. I couldn't see three feet in front of me. The wind was so strong, that it ripped the last stake out of the ground on the tent my friend had been working on, and hurled the entire thing full speed into the building next door to mine.
It was incredible event, but almost as fast as it started, it was over. The wind stayed pretty strong for a little while afterward, but we were only in the midst of the sand storm for maybe five minutes.
Now, a sandstorm was definitely on the list of things I wanted to experience during my one year's stay in Iraq, but one was definitely enough. Plus, I understand that as sandstorms go, this one was relatively minor. Unfortunately, with four more months left to go on my deployment, and the summer barely beginning, I doubt this will be the last I see of the high winds.
Here are some pictures after the sand storm.
I love you all,
----- AriReturn To Table of Contents