28 February 2007

Phase 4 and Empty Nest Syndrome

After 1 week of waiting for Phase 4 training, we are now in the full swing of classes and dieing a slow death by PowerPoint. A lot of this is a recap of our phase 1 trainng in Maryland. Recap is good due to all of the other things we've doing since then.

The first half of our group has finished their training and are flying out to their foward operating bases. Once 82 stong, we're down to 36 and very empty tents. We've become a very cohesive group since the 21st of January when this adventure began. We've gone from superficial conversation about jobs and progressed to asking about the welfare of each others families.

Lately for dinner, the price of admission has been the filling of a sandbag. This is a common occurance as the weather breaks down the sandbags filled last year. Speaking of dinner, I have found the strawberry milk in the drink coolers. It's the small things in life that keep you happy.

I have moved up the housing list from 19 to 12 in my patient wait for a 10x10 trailer to call home for the next 5 months. The trailers are one of the many improvements to this base since I left. There are rows upon rows of trailers all secured by 10 foot concrete barricades. Just being able to finally unpack will be great. I have been living out of duffel bags since January. I have given the Air Force 4 free weeks of time and finally had my time on deployment start counting on the 15th of February. The current belief is I will be flying home on or about the 12th of August.

LCDR Andy Gibbons and I were able to attend church on Sunday. The sermon was from Deuteronomy 29 and focused on grace in the midst of hardship to open our eyes to the real blessings of each day and in life. Great message and very well tailored to our existence here in Iraq.

Thanks for tuning into my blog. I now have a desk in the staff headquarters building as the JCCS-1 Intelligence Officer. The communications bandwidth is so much better here than at the morale tents. You can expect more timely updates from here on.

23 February 2007


My posts have contained misspelled words and fragmented sentences.


There is only so much bandwidth for the number of computers and Voice Over IP phones on base. The later we get here, the more saturated the bandwidth. One simple email may take almost the full 30 minutes we are allowed on the computer at one time. Thus, I have to publish as quickly as possible without the luxury of spell checking.

I are educated. :)
I also just want to go on record to say the coffee places here in Iraq have absolutely NOTHING on Dave Holland - coffee Barista extraordinaire - at the Holy Grounds Coffee Bar at the Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene!

22 February 2007

Rainy Days and Down Time

Our group is so big we had to split in half for Phase 4 training. Thus I am hanging out this week doing shelf checks at the BX and diving into my Body For Wife gym program. We start our training next week and conclude with a 100 question test.

This is the rainy season and once again the base is a soggy soup of mud. You get used to it after a while and forget about the mud streaks on your pants and tracking gravel and mud everywhere. This place is still better than when I left it in 2004 which keeps me happy.

I now have a mailing address:

Maj Mark Stoller
MNC-I / TF Troy / JCCS-1
APO AE 09342-1400

I am not in needof anything, but have never been known to pass up brownies or chocolate chip cookies. :) Letters will also make my day too!

For the first time, in the 5 days we've been here, we watched as 3 mortars dropped in on the base. Most likely 62 or 84mm. The third one landed near the palace with a deep thud and grey smoke. All necessary units were dispatched. We'll get the skinny on it later and will go exploring the 1/4 mile down the road to see the damage. Life in a combat zone.

19 February 2007

Then and Now

We flew into Baghdad Saturday evening after a typical day of flight delay and rescheduling. To my relief, we did a little evasive maneuvering on the descent instead of the "death spiral" corkscrew combat landing.

We were greeted by the command staff of JCCS-1 (Joint CREW Consolidated Squadron-1), our parent unit at Baghdad International Airport. After finding our pallet and gear, we were bussed to our temporary lodging on Camp Liberty.

This Camp used to be referred to us as the North 40 - an undeveloped area of Camp Victory without much infrastructure. Camp Liberty now has a Post Exchange (military WAL-MART) as big as any Wal-Mart in the US, Taco Bell, Cinnabon, Burger King, and a Green Bean Coffee shop. The PX has so much to offer in electronics, magazines, books, apparel, military gear, knives, flashlights, etc. Enormously wonderful.

Generally, we refer to the place we eat as the chow hall. In this case we would be doing an extreme unjustice to the dining facility...aka 4 star restaurant. There is a main line, short order line for burgers et all, a station for stir fry, indian cuisine, dessert bar, ice cream bar, salad bar. When i was last here, we had a triple-wide trailer to eat in serving normal cafeteria food. One of the Command Sergeant Major's has heard to complain that his soldiers are becoming soft and fat with such ammenities available to them. Hitting the gym is definitely of the utmost importance or else I come home big enough to be 2 of me!

We should be learning some time today what our assignments will be out of here. The current rumor is that I will remain on the JCCS-1 staff as the Senior Intelligence Officer. Since they've never had one before, I get to make up my job description as I go. I hope this is the case and I can be given the professional latitude to develop this position. Since there is 24 hours in a day, the staff isn't in much of a hurry to tell folks of their jobs despite our restless curiosity.

So much has changed for the positive at Camp Victory. A little switch has flicked in my cranium and it's almost like Homecoming being back here. I have slid into the deployed lifestyle as if i never left it and absolutely appreciate all of the improvements in living conditions the government has put into this camp.

One last thought. Almost every vehicle passing in and out of this base is up-armored and carrying equipmet to help defeat/delay the IED threat. There are many, although not quite enough, of the new Couger and Buffalo IED resistant vehicles. I saythis only to make the point that the new technology and equipment is flowing to theater to help protect the brave men and women who do convoys as a daily business. There are still a lot of young kids out here and they look 10 years advanced of the chronological age. This is a tough environment.

Thanks again for everyones prayers for Andra, the kids and for me.

15 February 2007

Training Phase 3 - Complete

We arrived in Kuwait Sunday morning around 11:00 local time and were taken to Camp Virginia in order to stage for our third phase of training. I'm not at liberty to talk about what we did, but I can kind of paint a picture of the living conditions.

Imagine light brown sand for as far as you can see, dotted with gentle rolling 4 foot dunes, bedouins, and camels. No kidding kind of Lawrence of Arabia looking stuff. In the middle of the sand, we had a plowed out compound where four 20x40 concrete pads held a 20x40 tent on it. This was both our classroom and sleeping quarters. This time of year, the temperatures range from 70 to 35 F. Each tent had a few folding tables and 50 plastic patio chairs. We had classroom instruction/planning and then practical application and execution out in the dessert ranges. We weren't allowed to eat inside our tents to avoid having critters come snooping for food while we slept on the floor in our Army modular sleeping system (aka sleeping bag with liner). The first evening was rather nice realizing I was in the middle of the desert, with clear skies above, and eating MRE's as if on a picnic. This interesting notion turned sour the next morning as we were standing outside in 35 degree weather at 4:00a.m. eating more MRE's. Thankfully, it warmed quickly throughout the morning and our ballistic goggles provided adequate protection from the sun glare off the sand. We did not have running water - only bottled water. Porta-potties were the only form of comfort as making a puddle in the sand was strictly forbidden. Our training lasted 3 days and 2 nights.

We find ourselves back at Camp Virginia and strangely pleased to sleep on our Army cots as if it were a treat. Sleeping bag or not, I'm getting too old to spend an entire night on a concrete floor. Tomorrow is admin day where we start our pay benefits of Hazardous Duty pay, Hostile Fire pay, Family Separation pay, etc. We should also find something about our transport into Baghdad in the next 48 hours.

I was able to do laundry upon our return, leaving weapon cleaning/sand eradication as the priority for tomorrow.

10 February 2007

Phase 2 Training - COMPLETE

An easy day today with packing our bags and cleaning the barracks as Prioirty 1. The mood was really light as we listened to music while cleaning, packing, and laughing out loud poking fun at each other. Our bags are on a truck awaiting delivery to the airport for weight and loading.

6 hours and a wake-up until we are on buses headed for the airport and out 27 hour journey to Kuwait.

I am not sure what conectivity I'll have in Kuwait. While berthed at Ali Asalem, there should be some internet cafe available. Once we go to the Udari range for 3 days of advanced combat skills training, I'll most likely be out to touch until we return to Ali Asalem.

Keep my folks and my family in your prayers. I know from experience when Andra deployed to Saudi and I stayed home...it's hardest being the one left behind.

09 February 2007

Winding Down

Today was a great deal of fun as we fired the heavy weapons I have been describing in previous posts. The smaller Squad Assault Weapons were fun...high rate of fire and tracers to track your aim. The real fun came with the .50 caliber machine gun and the Mk 19 Grenade Launcher. The .50 cal bullets are about the length of your hand from the base of your palm to the top of your middle finger and as round as your middle finger. The 40mm grenades for the Mk 19 are about the size of the 4 oz soda cans. It's one thing for me to talk about how far these weapons shot their ammunition. It's a whole other (and eye opening) world to see the no kidding distance the bullets and grenades travel. The range we went to today had old armored personnel carriers for targets arranged at varied distances. We were able to engage each target and light it up with each weapon.
Our final training for the day and for this 2 week course was the Fundamentals of Hand-toHand Combat. The moves and holds, sanctioned by the Army, come from the Ultimate Fighting Championship (www.ufc.com watch the video and see some moves). We learned how to gain dominant position, get out of a non-dominant position (read: on the bottom and getting your hiney handed to you); a couple of flips and holds to choke an opponent out; provide bodily harm to make the opponent submissive or pee a lot of blood if he survives the encounter, and most importantly, the ability for us to survive.
Tomorrow is admin wrap up day and loading the trucks with our bags. We'll dress out in our uniforms, carry whatever knives and gels over 3oz that we want to and start our journey. (unlike when I started this whole trip and had my tooth paste amoung 4 other items confiscated by the TSA agent at Security in Boise airport).
This has been some spectacular training over the last 2 weeks - real warrior stuff I could never get from computer based training while flying my desk from home station. My hats off to the Army for the training and the Navy for providing the logisitics and opportunity to do all of this.

08 February 2007

Reality Check

Today started with our 5 mile convoy and combat patrol. It was a very educational event simulating the confusion that ensues when several roadside bombs explode and an ambush has been set on both sides of the road. As a platoon, we handled ourselves well with good communication and field of fire discipline. We still have a lot to learn from the folks who do this almost every day in country.

Land navigation practical application came next. We went out to the wooded area of base; plotted the 4 points given to us on a map; measured distance and azimuth, and then went in search of those markers. My 4 man team was the last of 10 teams to go into the woods and the 2nd to emerge.
In retrospect of the last 2 days, I find that surprise has the greatest impact in warfare. While practicing entering and clearing rooms yesterday, we had the element of surprise. We were formed up and carried out our mission with speed and accuracy. Granted for team member #1 going through the door, it is life or death in the blink of an eye - if you don't have surprise on your side. Likewise, it's life or death on the road as the insurgents have the element of surprise with well placed bombs and organized ambushes.

For lunch we had a Meals Ready to Eat (MRE). This is only the second time we've had them since we've been here. Normally we receive a bag lunch from the dining hall. The bag lunches are fine, except they digest quickly leaving 2 hours of hunger before dinner. MRE's stick to your ribs and last you through out the day. They are also affectionately called Meals Refusing to Exit...because they stay with you for a long time. You have to frontload about 4 glasses of water before eating an MRE because they are so full of fiber.

We topped the day off with a little chemical warfare training.

Lastly, we received our official itineraries. We go wheels up at 7:30am this Saturday, routing through Bangor, Maine and Koln, Germany for fuel on our way to Kuwait. We should arrive around 1100 a.m. on Sunday, have 7-8 hours of acclimation time and then start in our advanced combat training. I'm not sure what access I may have to a computer, thus these updates may be rather sporatic once we leave here.

07 February 2007

Tactical Tuesday

After a mandatory (and extremely boring) briefing on the Law of Warfare, we road marched out to the urban operations village built out on a remote part of the base. We had a rousing time kicking down doors and learning to clear rooms, eliminate resistance or take prisoners, team movement from building to building, entry control point procedures, processing an enemy combatant from initial take down to placement into transport to a detention or medical facility.

Tomorrow will be Convoy Day! We have been given our operation order for 7 vehicles, heavy weapons, patrol route, air support from a either a Blackhawk or Apache helicoptor, med evac procedures, and much more. We will have to drive the route, respond to roadside bombs, ambushes, obstacles, maintain accountability of our teams and med evac the simulated wounded. Should be total fur ball of confusion, educational, but a lot of fun!

No pictures today...battery failure. Will try to get pix from someone else soon.

06 February 2007

Qualification and Heavy Weapons

Today was a typical Army training day...long periods of inactivity with spurts of productivity that makes one feel as if something were accomplished. I shot Expert on the 9mm pistol today placing 36 of my 40 rounds on target from the standing, kneeling, and prone position. My next accomplishment was receiving training on the Mk19 40mm grenade launcher, the .50 caliber machine gun (with a range of 4 miles), and the M-249 Squadron Assault Weapon. Really cool stuff and will be fun to shoot tomorrow. These are called heavy weapons...because they are heavy. Really. Normally, they are mounted on top of Hummers and are manned by someone standing through a hole in the roof and shooting from the top of the vehicle. We need to be familiar with these weapons in case the gunner is hit on a convoy and we need to stand in his/her place. Lastly, we did Flex fire. This is quick reaction, instinctive, and relatively unaimed fire. (See picture above)
My 12+ hour day is complete and time to give up the computer to one of a bunch of people standing in line.

04 February 2007

On the 7th day...we rested

I just learned how to insert pictures into my posts. Disregard the date on the picture. The camera automatically goes to that date when you change batteries. :)
Despite my 3 hours of sheer boredom while accomplishing weapons and fire watch, I sewed a cloth rank emblem on to my patrol hat, wrote letters home, did my laundry, and still had a decent night's sleep.

I attended the Protestant service at the chapel this morning where we focused on our walk with God using 1 John 1: 5-10 as a guide for the sermon and finished up taking Communion with 7 others. It was good topic for those of us leaving. I still feel connected while here in the Carolina's but that sinking feeling of distance and isolation take hold as you tack on the miles between you and home.

Although a day of rest, today will be busy sorting throug my belongings to identify the items I'll send home to lighten my burgeoning 200lbs load, put my uniform together for the coming week, and clean my weapons after rolling through the sand during qualification.

On a personal note, "Thank you" to all who have prayed for Andra, our children and me; and to those who have been keeping tabs on both of us. The long haul is coming with our departure from this great country next Saturday. Thanks for keeping us strong and being strong in your support for us.

Don't ever make fun...

Today was M16 qualification day. We have been fortunate enough to shoot at immovable targets prior to today. Our qualification range, as Emiril would say, "Kicked it up a notch". We had 40 targets to shoot at with 40 rounds. These targets would pop-up intermittently at 50/100/150/200/250/300 meters on the left and right of my firing lane. A very humbling experience as it took 3 tries to qualify. Now as I mentioned above, dont make fun of others peoples shooting ability or God will blow your bullets everywhere. A couple of us were giggling a bit at one fellows inability to even hit the stationary target...anywhere. Low and behold, despite my accurate successes in the last couple of days, my bullets did not run true to their targets. My Drill Instructor, SSG Serna, has had plenty of combat experience and imparted upon our humble 4th platoon the age old lesson, "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying." Thus when he was my safety officer for the 3rd go around, he handed me an extra 20 rounds and said,"Sir, don't stop shooting until hit the damn things!" Only 3 times did I have to expend 3 rounds on any one target. Most were single and double shots to take the target down.

Tomorrow we have the day off. I have my turn at weapons and fire watch tonite from 1200-300 a.m. That still gives me time to sleep in a little and make it to church by 1000. The rest of the day will be spent culling out the things I won't need to take on the rest of this adventure. We found out that we leave on Saturday via chartered commercial airlift. Next week, we will work on convoy operations, urban operations (read: kick in doors and foot patrol), and get to fire the BIG guns: .50 caliber, Mk19 grenade launcher; M249 squadron assault weapon, and a few others. I truly miss being at home with my family and church family - but your tax dollars are going towards paying me to blow stuff up for the sheer fun of it! How great is that??!!!

03 February 2007

Shooters, lock and load & commence firing

We spent the entire day on the firing range. This morning 130+ of us shot to sight in our weapons. This is where you shoot at the sighting target and see where your shots are grouped. Based on their location on the target, you know whether to move your sights up/down/right/left. No matter if the rifle is new or really old, sighting must be accomplished to fit the shooters style of firing.

This afternoon, we went to a firing range where laser sensors provide the exact location your bullet hits the target at 75, 150, and 300 meters (225ft/450ft/900ft). It was very gratifying to hear the controller for my firing lane call out, "head shot...critical mass...neck shot...below critical mass in the belly, etc" for each shot. That was probably the coolest range I've shot on.

Tomorrow we work on flexive fire. This is where you walk with your M16 in front of you, bring it quickly to shoulder height, fire 2 rounds without putting your face to the sights, and then return to the ready position. This would be used in a patrol situation in a hostile environment where unfriendlies could jump out at any minute and you try to get the first shot off at them.

02 February 2007

Rainy Day

A cold front is moving through again and the rain has been falling since 7am this morning. We had classroom instruction today on Personnel Recovery, Land Navigation, and Army Communications. In Personnel Recovery, we learned how to prepare ourselves emotionally and with proper equipment to escape and survive being captured outside our bases while on patrol. Land Navigation class consisted of learning the parts of the map, determining azimuth, distance, and using a compass to get from point A to point B. In order to make up for the lost training yesterday, 45 of us went to the computer simulated firing range to fire the M16. The gun is a replica and simulates the sound of a real shot. The only difference is we are shooting laser at a screen simulating pop up targets at 50/100/150/200/250/300 meters.

It will still be raining tomorrow, but we must stay on schedule. All 4 platoons ~125 people will all go to the range, zero their weapons, and shoot pop-up targets to qualify for this deployment. We will have 40 shots from various positions and must knock down at least 23 targets to qualify. I shot 26/40 tonite on the range...hopefully it translates to doing well on the course of fire tomorrow.

01 February 2007

A Day in the Life...

At one time, the Army motto was "Be All You Can Be" and has changed within the last couple of years to "An Army of One". No matter what polish and propaganda you use to motivate people toward the Army, the blunt, no kidding reality of the Army's motto is"Hurry Up and Wait...and then wait some more". It's been cold here in the Carolinas over the last couple of days with highs around 38 F. Today we spent from 7:30am until 1:00p.m. doing nothing much of anything. All 4 platoons were to have range and computer simulation time today. We didn't get ours...we just stood around waiting for our turn. Finally at 1230, we marched over to the rally point for the buses to take us to the medical facility where we repeated a bunch of our previously accomplished medical appointments. Enough whining. Hooah!

Beyond the training, there is the personal side of each day. I live with 41 of my closest friends in a Korea War era open barracks. By the time I checked in last Sunday, all of the bottom bunks were taken. The top bunk mattress sits at a height of about 5 ft (up to the top of my shoulders). I didn't realize the gymnastic and Herculean effort it would take to catapult my 257 pounds of rock solid love to the top bunk! Needless to say it's a sight...one that my bunk mates all enjoy watching as if it were a spectator sport. :) From the top bunk I have a view of the world and the auditorium seat of the Century for the snore fest that occurs every night. Not quite a symphony, but a synchopated rythem similar to a pasture of happy cows mooing. I find the more tired I am each night, the easier it is to ignore the chorus. Chow still remains tasty.

Our friendships are forming and we are becoming a cohesive group of Officers and Enlisted interested in helping each other and getting through the day with mutual support. I lend my casual style of dry, sarcastic humor which goes a distance to keep folks smiling in uncertain and physically burdensome times. I will take my camera out tomorrow and hopefully have some pictures to add to this site tomorrow.