Observations from al Asad, Iraq

Al Asad Air Base
Anbar Province, Iraq

It took me a few moments to realize that the nice men from al Asad Air Base's private security force, SOC SMG, were taking me into custody. The slight but well-armed Ugandan guards who inspected my press ID at the entrance to Green Beans Coffee were unfailingly polite while denying me access. "Please wait a moment, Sir," one gentleman said to me in refreshingly formal English as he conferred with his comrades. Everyone on this huge US military installation, from US Marine colonels to Bangladeshi chow hall workers, is required to wear an official badge. My ID card was unlike any other military-issued card the guard had seen, he explained to me. He radioed his shift supervisor for guidance.

The shift supervisor, a strapping white American man, early 30s, arrived in a beat-up Kia pickup truck. He wore the same extensively pocketed khaki outfit as the Ugandans, and he too was downright friendly. Unfortunately, my ID, which was issued by the US Army's Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, also flummoxed him. He pulled out his walkie-talkie and called SOC SMG's TOC - tactical operations center (so many acronyms, so little time!). The voice on the radio ordered him to bring me in. Let's take a ride, the towering supervisor said to me amiably. I climbed in, more bemused than worried.

This was, after all, an odd situation. On a US military base in Iraq I had been questioned by a Ugandan contractor and then detained (which may not be the best word, since I willingly complied) by an American civilian - this after living among Marines, following them into combat, and moving freely about their bases and outposts for weeks. No one asked for my stinking badge when I was getting shot at.

I turned the ride into an adventure. I asked the supervisor a few questions about himself and about SOC SMG. He's a former Marine, he said. SOC SMG is a private firm run by Americans and staffed by Ugandans that reports directly to the base commander, a US Marine general. The Americans, all former US Special Forces operators or SWAT cops, train and supervise 240 Ugandans. Armed with M-16s, helmeted and flak-jacketed, the Ugandans check IDs at various points on base - the post exchange, Green Beans and Subway, Burger King, the AT&T phone center, and so on. US Military Police guard secure and sensitive facilities.

I must admit that I find the racial dynamic fascinating - an all black African force led by Americans ( I only saw white ones) - but I don't think race is the salient factor in the relationship. It's an Industrialized World - Developing World thing (or a North-South thing, if you prefer). Workers in the chow halls at al Asad and other large US bases in Iraq and Kuwait tend to be South Asian - Nepali, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian. (The gentleman who scooped me a grapefruit-sized glob of chocolate ice cream at lunch is Sri Lankan as is the young man who bagged trash at the end of the meal.) Filipinos are well represented on the post exchange staff. Eastern Europeans (Romanians and Macedonians) clean the port-a-johns and pick up the copious garbage around base. KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary that runs noncombat logistics for much of the US enterprise in Iraq, is the über-boss of all of these workers.

It's a curious type of outsourcing (or is it insourcing, since it's outside the continental US) but a very recognizable form of support from subordinate nations for an American undertaking of imperial scope. A multinational Coalition of the Billing, straddled by proconsul KBR, serving an enterprise many Americans have begun to question but know almost nothing about.

"You need an escort with this card," SOC's supervisor of supervisors told me at the TOC with preemptive assertiveness. Base commander's regulations, he replied. Period. Journalists will not roam free at al Asad. My colorful US Army-issued ID is as useful as a tongue scraper, it appears. Now I must tag along after lance corporals, sergeants, and lieutenants when I want coffee or need food.

Happily, there's a huge upside to having my wings clipped. I am spending unhurried time with Marines I met initially under tense, dangerous, less salubrious circumstances - on missions and patrols or back at grotty "firm bases" in the middle of Hit, a beleaguered town a few dozen kilometers to the east. Here at al Asad, so deep in the Iraqi desert, no one worries much about mortar attacks or snipers. An insurgent/anti-occupation fighter/whatever would have to be suicidal and invisible to sneak up on this isolated, fortified, massively armed complex through flat, naked desert . So the Marines of Battalion Landing Team 1/2's Charlie Company I have been traveling with have stripped off their bulletproof vests, helmets, and ballistics goggles and rinsed away weeks of grime and tension. Removed from the day-to-day grind of combat and the constant threat of attack, they can breathe.

I talk cameras one night in a Charlie Company tent with Lance Corporal Angel Vazquez, a 24-year-old from New York's Chelsea who wants to break into photography and video. He's a big guy, roughly 6-foot, probably around 190-200 pounds, but he's not exactly a Marine Corps hardbody. He's got a little paunch - but he's working on it. Vazquez isn't as voluble or as crude as the average grunt. He's kind of quiet; his eyes hide between sleepy lids when he listens but they are aware and attentive.

Vazquez takes a lot of shit from some of the Charlie grunts for being a New York City boy - though I wonder how many realize he lives in a public housing complex, not a condo - and for having a taste for non-macho, even weepy movies. He also did a stint as a Prada salesman before enlisting. But Vazquez parries, counterattacks, and one-ups the other grunts with sharp insults and embarrassing recollections. His rep as a lady's man also tends to shut 'em down. This is his second Iraq deployment, his second combat tour. The last time we spoke, he wasn't planning to reenlist. He's done his time. His mother, Anita, will be thrilled to hear it.

Corporal June Ramos is not a large man, though I hesitate to call him small. He's a compact five feet and change with a wide chest. He is earnestness personified.

June is an atypical name for a man, I venture. His parents named him after the month he was born, he tells me as we sit outside absorbing what little warmth the midday sun offers. He is the rare bird who keeps his plumage tucked. Ramos has undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and philosophy. He spent two and a half years working on a Masters in theology. After moving from the Philippines to the US in 1997, he took vows as a junior professed monk and lived in a New Mexico monastery for three years.

Ramos joined the Marine Corps at 30, 10 years later than the typical recruit. He's now 33. I ask him why he leapt from seminarian to grunt. His answer verges on solipsism, but it's as deep as he is willing to go. Ramos wants to be a Navy Chaplain. He joined the infantry, he tells me, to "have a little bit of foretaste" of military life. His combat experience will enable him empathize with the grunts he ministers to.

Ramos doesn't want to talk about the killing Marines do, but when I press him, he says he'd pull the trigger to end an attacker's life - but not before exhausting every other possibility. This is his second deployment to Iraq. Like Vazquez, he did seven months in Iskandariya, a city just south of Baghdad, last year, two months in Hit this time. He has a year left on his enlistment, but he plans to extend it so he can deploy again. "Iraq ain't that bad," he says. I ask him if he's afraid of the ubiquitous IEDs and other deadly hazards in Iraq. He shrugs. "Only God knows what will happen next.... I hope he won't take me. If that happens, it's in his hands."

Lance Corporal Seamus Bryan's guileless, smooth-as-a-plum face screams, "Kid". His head is big and round and practically swollen with youth. The 20-year-old Sarasotan signed his enlistment papers - rather, his parents did - at 17, as a high school senior. " It took my mom a while to sign the piece of paper," Bryan says. "She really did not want me to go but she ended up doing it. Hopefully, they're proud of me for everything I've done so far."

He was hooked on the USMC after seeing a performance of the Corps' Silent Drill Team, a ceremonial unit that does just what the name says with mechanical precision and martial sang-froid. They march in lock step, toss rifles sky-high - and catch them - like nobody's business. "Their discipline, their bearing.... They all just looked good," the young lance corporal effuses. "You could tell that they stood above everybody else that was there. And I like the aura they had about them, the commanding, I'm in charge, this is going to be done my way aura."

This is also Bryan's second tour in Iraq. He recalls grabbing a reporter - me - by the back of his flak jacket and propelling him toward a bunker during a mortar attack last year in Iskandariya that killed a Marine and wounded eight . That was Bryan's first mortar attack and mine as well. He reminds me that mortars later landed where I had been kneeling.

Bryan plans to reenlist. "I have no problem coming back here, he says of Iraq. "I'll definitely stay a minimum of 20 years." He shares the dream of many young men - and a growing number of young women: he wants to be a Marine Corps pilot.

Charlie Co. leaves Iraq for its next mission in a few days. Three Charlie Marines were killed in Hit this year and many more were injured. They will be replaced by new recruits who will deploy in less than year, most likely to Iraq. The cycle continues.