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Handling it when completely "off"

Published November 03. 2009 05:00PM

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is another installment from First Lieutenant Jed Fisher, currently serving as a United States Army platoon leader in the First Armored Division in Iraq. He has spent his whole life in the Palmerton/Carbon County area, and "misses it dearly." Jed has been emailing home and shares what his life is like in the Maysan province in southeastern Iraq.)

Dear friends,

Welcome to November. October passed with a few dings and dents, but nothing we can't hammer out. Nov. 5 will mark the official half-way point, but word on the street is that we'll be home in April, meaning we're already past halfway. I'll be going on leave soon, and it's hard to really focus on much else right now. Thanks to everyone for the support, packages, emails and prayers. I appreciate all of it. I visited a prison a few weeks ago, but it took me a few weeks to realize the significance of the visit.


Another day, another tax-free dollar. There are certainly some perks to this, but really just some small financial gains – not to mention the considerable overtime I'm not paid for. A typical day for me starts somewhere around 7 a.m. and I usually start to cut loose somewhere around 7 p.m., 1900 for you military folks.

Now, anybody that's ever served in the military, specifically the combat arms (grunts, tanks, artillery, and since nobody uses tanks or artillery in Iraq, we're all basically boiled down to our lowest common denominator-grunts) understands that there is significant down time in this line of work. You can only "do" so much maintenance, or "conduct" so much training, and now with the security agreement, we can only "execute" so many reconstruction missions.

My 84-hour workweek is long, and by definition, probably extreme. I'm paying some hidden, and unusual taxes, however.

Please, allow me to tell you about my journey to an Iraqi Prison.

An Iraqi lackey buzzes around the gray, fluorescently off-white room. I try hard to hold back a benign smile, as I can't help but think about his amusing uniform preference – he's wearing woodland camouflage pants and a jacket – which is fine – but I wonder if the Michael Jackson-style penny loafers are part of the basic issue around here.

I bow my head for a moment as I consider the odd tribute to the permanently dethroned king of pop.

The light-footed servant works directly for the prison warden, and serves up cans of Iraqi soda and bottled water.

The Provincial Reconstruction Team's (PRT) "rule of law" adviser has set up a meeting here at the provincial prison, and his primary purpose is to ask a series of questions to the staff, and figure out if all or any will divulge, or even hint at the truth.

I think every prison, U.S. and otherwise has to have some 'unmentionables' swept under the carpet, but by comparison there are probably 'un-thinkables' lurking in the closets of this secure sanctuary of the suspect and previously suspected.

As most engagements with Iraqis on the government payroll go, this one winds and turns off in a few unconnected directions, with the expected wish-list of projects large and small.

The warden wants portable trailers to set up a vocational program; land rights to correct some water issues; athletic equipment for the inmates – and so on. Although we'll officially acknowledge their requests – unofficially - we don't play Santa, and trust me, there's no Christmas and little other merriment in Maysan Province.

My PRT colleagues (their tax-free earnings are about four times what mine are, humbly enough) are good listeners. Me, on the other hand, I have to go to the bathroom. I'm a grown man, of course – I have no problem asking anybody at all for permission, it's nature after all, and probably something unusual in the soda.

The issue, however is this: I had to leave my weapon outside the building – prison policy; I don't know where the nearest bathroom is; and I don't have an interpreter nearby because the only one we brought along is actually conducting the meeting.


Dammit to hell, I think to myself. Not to mention I felt completely "off" this given day for a combination of reasons: slept about three hours, drank three cups of coffee and two energy drinks; got lost; thought I was going to get blown up; dehydrated; haven't eaten in about five hours; sweating; got lost again; and now I'm in a prison full of American-hating crooks and I don't have a weapon. And I've been drinking water and some strange, syrupy fruit soda despite my ever-swelling bladder's badgering.

"Tax me, take my money, just get me out of here," are my pervasive thoughts. I really want to avoid disrupting this entire meeting just to politely ask to use the restroom.

In retrospect, I should have politely excused myself from the meeting, walked out the door and linked up with my security element, only two of which had guns (again, prison policy) and gestured however desperately to the Iraqis on duty that "Hey buddy, I have to use the bathroom, now."

Like I said, I was "off" which really seems to compound itself here any given day. It feels to me like being hungover – brain function dialed way back, decision making ability generally retarded, and various body parts throbbing – only God knows why.

Of course, my hindsight is pretty good, but at the time, I just sat there politely unable to pay attention to anything at all. Despite the fact that I was utterly unconcerned with the meeting, the penny loafers, or the fact that 700-plus inmates are packed into a space meant to accommodate 350, I just don't want to disrupt this meeting, as unimportant as it may seem. A small part of me still believes that every meeting, gesture, and notion matters here. I'm trying hard to be supportive, and if that means holding back what I wish to say or do for the sake of the other Americans trying hard to help out here, then so be it.

I can handle it.

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