Life and death decisions are a common theme in Iraq
First Lieutenant Jed Fisher is 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 to his family about once a week and shares what his life is like in the Maysan province in southeastern Iraq and we thought you might appreciate reading about the experiences of one of our brave servicepeople. Here's his latest commentary.
Just wanted to tell you I'm doing just fine. We made it through Ramadan in one piece - really no different than any other time. We're still working hard on our reconstruction projects, but we're starting to realize that there's lots of problems here that go FAR deeper than a lack of capacity for the government. The culture, the way of life and dare I say the religious traditions here are probably going to hold this bitter place back for a few more decades. For instance, we recently purchased and installed generators for all 16 regional vet clinics in the province, which should be a major score for the locals considering about 60% of the incomes here are livestock related. Generators mean that when the national grid works it's typical three hours on three hours off, the generator would provide a continuous power source to power refrigerators and freezers to preserve vaccinations and medicines. I've personally visited 11 of these clinics, and not even one had a single drop of fuel in the 200L tanks we also paid for. Gas is cheap here, but I'm beginning to realize the problems here are not as superficial as they might seem. Even if there was gas in these tanks, who's to say the veterinarian or the workers wouldn't siphon the gas right out of the tank? I'm certain stranger things have happened. All else is well, thanks for the prayers and packages.
I've written another narrative, give it a read.
My eyes are bloodshot, my back hurts. I have the worst farmer's tan you have ever seen. Seriously, my face is sunburned and wind beaten - the same with my forearms; yet a quick glimpse at my legs and chest would likely cause you to sneeze. I'm uncommonly disbelieving, often on the verge of pessimistic. Indeed, I'm frustrated. My friends, I am burned out. Surprise, surprise. I knew it would happen, I think it happens to most vets - we see through the superficial glory and see the gray areas of our meandering minds. We learn about the other side of the human existence - and we all wear the scars, but most of us cover them up better than you'd think.
"Hey Sir?" Joe, my machine-gunner asked over the intercom system. He sits in a strap-type seat with his rear end and midsection inside of my truck, and his upper torso inside the turret, surrounded by inches of steel and glass, perfectly sand-colored and intricate in an intimidating way.
"Yea?" I reply back, not quite sure what to expect as I scour the terrain around me, my eyes straining to see around every rock, blown out tire and garbage pile along the side of the road. I'm looking for IEDs of course.
"What's the difference between a second-world country and a third-world country?" Joe reasonably asks. We have these kinds of philosophical conversations daily - you learn to talk about everything, and even make up things to talk about when you spend so many hours together in a confined space that traps emotions suffocates privacy. Our intercoms are great - we wear headsets under our helmets that drown out most of the deafening sounds of the vehicles, and enable us to monitor various radio 'nets' and our own intercom. It's not unusual at all for me to listen to two conversations at once, and process all the information and carry on both without missing a beat. Just like turning off a light-switch, I tell myself. Joe's question doesn't surprise me, but it's been a long time since I thought about this type of thing. When's the last time any of us thought of this type of stuff?
I welcome the thought of thinking about something without a right or wrong, potential life/death type decision. Mere moments before this, I had to choose a route back to our small base; a decision which forced me to consider the likeliness that my plan could result in a catastrophic cataclysm. Life/Death, a common theme. A moment or two later, I replied "Well, we know what first world is, the US. We know what third world is, Iraq." Without knowing it, but realizing upon reflection, my face surely contorted into a semi-sardonic sneer, my left eye half closed as I engage the right-side of my brain.
As I searched for the answer, I could not help but think of this as a math problem - similar to adding the average income of a neighborhood, of which only two homes participate in the survey. The rich people, and the poor folks down the block. An average income of $50,000 sounds pretty damn good, but when it's $99,000 + $1,000 (RICH + POOR) and you reconsider the $50,000, there's not the slightest chance in the world that $50,000 is an accurate description of the income of this strange neighborhood. From what I've seen here; Mauch Chunk and Maysan Province could be well described as the two homes from two sentences ago.
We eventually whittle apart the argument, all the while the three of us, Driver, Gunner, Truck Commander, trying hard to focus on the road, listen to two or three conversations at once, and also think coherently about what a second-world country really is. I know I'm supposed to be the smart guy, the college-educated diploma guy with the rank and authority to force others to either agree with me or not speak at all. Instead though, I decide to take a backseat while riding in the front-seat, and assume the role of devil's advocate. I ask the driver, born across the Rio Grande from El Paso, "Do most homes in Juarez have running water?" His reply, "Oh yea, I mean yea... of course it's not that bad there." 'That bad' being 'this bad' as in right here, about 100 feet from my uncomfortable seat. A small neighborhood sewage stream cuts between two small mud-brick dwellings on the fringe of the berm we're driving on. That, redefines bad. A small flood of effluent flowing through a place kids play is almost normal here. Lord have Mercy, I think to myself as I mouth a silent a Hail Mary, both for the kids in the puddles and the next pile of rocks I have to drive past.
Access to essential services - we agree - is the primary factor affecting quality of life, combined with economic condition and access to the free market. It took some finesse on my part, but that's why I get paid what I get paid. I'm supposed to be able to think and get others to think too. Just as I thought the conversation died, Joe piped up again.
"How the [hell] do they get an ambulance here?" Before I had time to respond, Joe asked again, "how the [hell] do they even tell the ambulance where to go? They don't even have street addresses." Joe blurts, if his hands weren't working the joystick on the turret, I'm sure his palms would turn up to the sky, the universally understood gesture for 'What the (hell)'? That's a great question. I think you could define a second world country as somewhere halfway between having a street address and being able to call 911.