Friday, October 30, 2009

Waiting in ???

So, I finally made it to my intermediate destination. (My unit has instituted a draconian security policy where we're not supposed to let you know what country we're in, so this blog has been edited, but I'm sure you all can figure it out.) We were initially supposed to be leaving early Wednesday morning, with the typical 12 hours of Army preparation (stand in formation, load your bags on the truck, wait around for another hour, stand in another formation, turn in your keys, wait around some more, stand in another formation, wait around for a while, get issued your weapons, then wait some more). We were about half the way into the process (I'd just been given my M16) when our flight was pushed back 12 hours due to weather conditions. So, we had to turn our gear back in, get re-issued keys so we'd have somewhere to sleep, and then crash out until we got up at 3 AM to re-do it again.
We flew out on a comercial jet and were packed into economy class, just like usual, only there were M16's shoved under the seats. After a stop somewhere in Canada to refuel and a brief layover for crew change in Germany, we finally arrived in our current location.
There's quite a change from the geography and climate that I'm used to. Walking off the plane, the first thing that hits you isn't the sights or the smells, it's the taste. Even before I'd made it down the steps to the tarmac, I could taste the dust and dirt building up in my mouth. There's dust and sand everywhere (and really not much else). The entire country is colored in variations of brown. We flew over the country's capital on the way in, and it was shaped normally, but everything was a tan-brown color. Even the sky is brown. If you look straight up, there's a small patch of white/blue sky, but the closer to the horizon you get, the browner the sky looks. The landscape is pretty boring. It makes Eastern Colorado look downright scenic in comparison. Thankfully, the weather itself hasn't been too bad. There's a constant wind blowing, so you get a face full of dirt everywhere you go, but the temperature's only been in the 80's and 90's, so I really can't complain.
Living conditions aren't too bad either. I'm sleeping in a large tent with 40 of my closest friends. But, it's clean and it's air conditioned with power plugs (running 220V) and a plywood floor, so I can't complain. The food's pretty good here too. The cafeteria's staffed entirely by foreign nationals with minimal English comprehension, but it's clean and the 2 meals that I've had so far have both been great. We went to the gym today, which is nicer than the gym at Ft. Leonard Wood, and obviously, I've been able to get online.
It looks like I'll be here a little while before moving on to my final destination, so more information later.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ceremonies, Packing, and my Internet Addiction

Deployment time is slowly creeping closer. Today, we had our CSH "Deployment Ceremony". Our hospital formed up in tight ranks, marched around a parade field, and then stood at parade rest for 20 minutes in the freezing cold wind while our commander and our commander's commander gave speeches to us and the families of soldiers who lived in the area or who were able to come down for the ceremony. Making a large group of doctors and nurses march around wasn't without its comic moments. Most of us hadn't done any marching in formation since we were in basic training, so we were all a little rusty. Unfortunately, Cristin wasn't able to make it for the ceremony. While I would have loved to see her and Drew one last time before I went, it seemed like a little much to have her fly half the way across the country with a 2-month-old just to see me march across a field.
After the ceremony, I decided to do a practice run of packing all of my gear. I've had all of my equipment for some time now, and was able to send a tough box full of stuff that I didn't anticipate needing anytime soon (the -30 degree cold weather parka and snowpants that the Army issued me?) in a shipping container a week or so ago. But, I still had gear spread out all over my room that I wasn't sure how it was going to fit. After a little bit of work, I was able to squeeze everything into the rucksack and duffle bag that the Army provided me, although I may get a hernia if I try to pick both up at the same time. Of course, the neatness didn't last long, as I then had to unpack everything to get to the uniforms and clothing that I'll need. At least I know that it'll all fit.
Right now, I'm back at Barnes and Noble again. I didn't realize how dependent I'd become on the internet until I started to live without a constant internet connection. I was so used to being able to walk over to the computer and look up something anytime I had a question, I felt lost without it. Living on post in the barracks, we don't have internet connections in our rooms. (There are network plugs in the walls. I think that they're just shut off since the normal unit who lives in the barracks are gone overseas.) Our only options have been to walk across to a little internet cafe that's set up, where you pay an hourly rate for an internet connection that's shakey at best, or to catch a cab off post to somewhere where there's free internet. Thus, lately I 've been catching a cab to Barnes and Noble alot. When you split the cab amongst a few people, it ends up costing less and it's a much more comfortable set-up. Supposedly, we're going to be able to have internet connections in our housing when we're downrange, although I've been told the quality of the connection varies alot. This was reassuring for me, as I hope to use Skype alot to communicate with Cristin and Drew. Still, it's amazing when you look at it in the larger context. We're living in a war zone and will still be able to see and talk with our families most evenings. When you compare that to what American soldiers in other wars had for amenities, it's pretty incredible.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Chaos Everywhere

I spent more time out in the field today. We combined many of the skills we'd learned yesterday in one large training exercise today, complete with M16's loaded with blanks, lots of loud noise, "opposing force" instructors firing blanks at us, and what has to be one of the only bogs/swamps in North Carolina. Just to make sure that we got the whole experience, my unit was kind enough to give us uncleaned M16s and cartridges with "dummy" blanks mixed in so that our weapons jammed every 1-2 shots. (S-P-O-R-T-S... I think I've got it down now.) I felt like I was using a bolt action rifle, I was pulling back the bolt to clear jams so often. As often is the case, nothing goes as planned once weapons start going off and things start going wrong, but I think my team still did fairly well. At end of the day, I was drenched in sweat and soaked in muddy water, but it was still kind of fun.
On the home front, it seems like everything's been going wrong this week. Cristin's cell phone broke, we had plumbing issues develop yesterday, and the car had to go into the shop today. Exactly the kind of stress I was hoping that Cristin could avoid while I was gone. At this point I think we've got everything under control, so hopefully things will be more calm next week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


The Army’s always had a reputation for giving soldiers a lot of vaccines. It’s not unheard of for new basic trainees entering the Army to have to receive upwards of 10 shots during basic training, especially if they forgot their shot records at home. At this point in my life, especially given my 7 years in the Army, I thought I was pretty well caught up on shots… but the Army never fails to come up with a few more. As part of my deployment screening, I had the privilege of getting Typhoid, Anthrax, and Smallpox vaccinations. I got the first 2 while I was still home in Missouri, but deferred the smallpox as it’s contagious and I didn’t want Drew to get exposed to it. The Typhoid wasn’t bad, but the Anthrax made my deltoid hurt for a week. Once I got here, the medics hooked me up with the Smallpox vaccine. It was a little uncomfortable to begin with (see earlier post), but now the real fun begins. The smallpox vaccine is actually an induced infection with the cowpox virus (a.k.a. vaccinia, which is where the word vaccine originated from). The initial inoculation pokes a bunch of holes in your skin to induce the virus, and then you just wait for the infection to kick in. I’ve now got a large blister/pustule on my arm. Thankfully, it doesn’t hurt, but it does get annoying that I can’t scratch it due to the risk of spreading it via my fingers to other parts of my body… no fun!!
On the homefront, I talked with Cristin (and heard Drew in the background) again tonight. Right now, I’ve still got cell phone access, although I’m shutting down my account after I leave the country. We’re going to have to rely on Skype from then on. It’s hard to imagine life before we had such instantaneous access to each other. I’m already starting to miss both of them, and I felt really bad when I couldn’t fix some problems with Cristin’s cell phone over the phone. “Hey Sean, could you fix this?” is one of Cristin’s more common greetings and usually I’m able to sort out a solution sooner or later. But this one (her phone’s microphone appears to have stopped working) had me stumped. After trying everything I could think of and Cristin taking a trip to a Verizon store, which was even less helpful, we decided that it’s time for a new phone.
We’ve spent the last 2 days in the field, yesterday spending all day at the firing range with our M16’s (I qualified the first time I fired it, really not too different from the .22 rifles we used to shoot at Boy Scout Camp, other than the bulky body armor) and then today out working on various Army-type skills. Despite sunscreen use, I’m already starting to develop my “Army Tan”. Much like the fabled farmer tan, the Army tan is a tan or sunburn that involves only the back of your hands, the back of your neck, and from the neckline of your shirt up to a line that runs about an inch above the eyebrows around to about an inch above your ears. When we’re in uniform in the field, we always have long sleeves, which covers everything but your hands, and then your helmet creates this goofy tan line above your eyebrows and ears. I’m sure this is only going to get worse once I move to warmer/sunnier locations.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fun and Games

We got to go play video games on the Army's dime today, even if they were video games with a purpose. They had this complicated set-up where there was a full screen projection of a firing range with very realistic laser-firing guns with pneumatic hook-ups to simulate recoil. It was alot of fun, although I found that markmanship is harder than you'd think when you've got body armor on. Otherwise, not much exciting going on at the moment. The internet connection's kind of shakey tonight, so I think I'm going to cut things off here.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Airborne... kinda

So, as some of the more astute observers may have noted, my unit's combat patch designates us as an Airborne unit. This is a designation in the Army that specifies that the unit is theoretically capable of being deployed from a plane... via parachute. I myself have never been through Army Airborne school. And to be perfectly honest, don't plan on jumping out of an airplane anytime during our upcoming deployment. (I always thought that Airborne school would be fun. But in my current job as a doc in a clinic, it's a pretty big stretch to convince my boss that it would somehow benefit the Family Medicine Clinic and let me do my job better if I left the hospital for a month, saw no patients, and learned the proper way to jump out of airplanes.) None the less, as I am now an official member of a Combat Support Hospital, I have become a member of an Airborne unit, with all of it's associated priveleges. Today was another day of death by powerpoint, but the morning's highlight was the Airborne "Beret Ceremony". In it, our unit assembled, we got a speech from the hospital commander about the history of the red beret, and then all of the newly assigned soldiers were allowed to don the red beret, which all Airborne soldiers wear, for the first time.
Having to wear a beret isn't something new to me. Due to an unfortunate decision sometime in the 1990's, everyone in the Army has to wear a beret, just for most of us it's a black one. I've always felt they were kind of silly looking hats. They're tough to maintain, they don't keep your head warm, they don't shade your eyes from the sun, and they take 2 hands to put on, which is a real pain when you're walking out the door with your hands full and have to put on your cover. None the less, the red Airborne beret has a long history, starting with British paratroopers and being passed on to American soldiers early in World War II. It's a cool honor to wear it, even if I really didn't do much to earn it.
In other news, as mentioned earlier, most of my time since my last posting has been spent either sitting getting barraged with powerpoint presentations, or getting issued even more supplies. My newest acquisitions include a sleeping pad, some rain gear, and a folding entrenching tool (shovel to us mortals). What on earth I'm going to be doing with an entrenching tool, I don't know, but somebody felt I needed it. This next week will hopefully be a little more exciting. We've still got many more powerpoints to go, but we're going to the firing range for a day or two this week, and have a few other days out in the field doing soldier-type-stuff as well.
I'm going to try to post up a few pictures soon, but my internet access has been so spotty, I haven't made much of an effort yet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Let the Waiting Begin

So, after a ridiculously long wait in the St. Louis, I eventually made it to Ft. Bragg, NC, just at 11:30 PM instead of 5:30 as originally planned. My unit was kind enough to pick me up at the airport, and initially, I was expecting that they'd just drop me off at the barracks and let me sleep. But, they had other plans. Because of the tight training schedule that we're on, even though we arrived so late, I went straight from the airport to the hospital's offices, where I sat down with the other 3 soldiers who arrived on my plane and spent the next 2 hours filling out paperwork. Finally, at about 2:00 AM, I was taken to my barracks where I got a wonderful 4 hours of sleep.
From Monday until now, we've been continuing to "inprocess". We spent most of Monday getting "death by powerpoint", basically 8 straight hours of powerpoint lectures. (Yes, it's as exciting as it sounds.) On the upside, I now have a much better understanding of where I'll be going and an approximate idea of when we'll be leaving. Unfortunately, for security reasons I can't tell you either one, but you'll all find out soon enough. I found out that I won't be at the main locations that most of my CSH is going to be. I also found out that my commander described the living conditions on the site that I'm staying at as "Hell on Earth"... we'll have to see.
Today, we spent most of the day being issued equipment, some of which is pretty cool. I learned how to put together my bulletproof vest (which has a self-destruct eject handle if it gets caught in an emergency... how cool is that?) and was given a bunch of "free" clothes, coats, and other army stuff. We have to give the big items (backpack, etc.) back, but apparently we're going to get to keep most of the clothes and coats. If nothing else, they'll make good camping gear down the line.
Sleeping conditions here are not half bad. Usually, when Army medical staff get sent to another post, we end up staying in a hotel off post because there's not housing available. Here, they've set our entire CSH up in a barracks that is vacant right now because its usual occupants are already in Iraq. The room itself kind of resembles a dorm room... actually it's quite a bit nicer than any of the dorm rooms that I stayed in in college. I've got my own private bedroom with a bed, desk, etc, and then share a kitchen and bathroom with the orthopedic surgeon who lives next door. Unfortunately, there's no internet access (I had to go to an internet cafe to post this), but that's a small price to pay, especially since we're getting all of our food for free from a nearby dining hall. It's not quite as nice as a hotel (no maid service, no TV), but as none of us were able to bring cars, it's not a bad setup.
Well, it's time for me to sign off. The internet time is running out and I need to go home and pack up my room some. There's still a pile of Army cold weather gear on my bed that needs to find a new home, and we're getting a whole new pile of equipment tomorrow.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Welcome to my new Iraq blog. After seeing a few members of my residency build blogs where they chronicled their deployments, and recognizing my poor record when it comes to regular letter writing, I figured this might be a good way to help me keep friends and family informed of how things are going overseas. I'm going to try to put up posts on a semi-regular basis so that everyone can know what I'm thinking, what's going on, and how things are going. If you've got any questions about what I'm up to or how things on deployment work, feel free to email me and I'll see if I can't explain it for everybody.
At the moment, the "Sean in Iraq" title is a bit of a misnomer, as this first post is being written from St. Louis. I was scheduled to fly out at 12:30 today to eventually meet up with my unit in Ft. Bragg. But, the trip's already off to an inauspicious start. The government bureaucrat in charge of arranging my deployment travel only did half of their job. A reservation for my flight was made, but the flight was never "funded" or paid for, so I had an empty reservation without an official ticket. This error was compounded by a trainee clerk at the Delta check-in desk, who didn't recognize that the ticket wasn't paid for and issued me my boarding pass anyways. The problem wasn't picked up until I attempted to board the plane, when the "friendly" (and I use the term loosely) gate attendant turned me away. So, end result, my duffel bag flew on the scheduled flight to Atlanta and will hopefully end up at Ft. Bragg, but I'm still here at Lambert Field. Carson Wagonlit (the government travel agency) is still floundering attempting to get my ticket funded as I sit and wait.
In the meantime, I'm hanging out here at the USO, which is new to me, but pretty darn cool. They've got a place with free coffee and snacks, a computer lab, a TV-viewing area, free wireless, and even a couple of random guitars sitting around that you can pick up and play while you wait. On the whole, a handy and much appreciated service to provide to our nation's soldiers. I'm able to sit down, plug in my laptop, and type on this while I wait for the travel agents and government travel office to get their act together.
So, in summary, welcome to my blog. Hopefully, more posts will be coming soon, and hopefully none of them will be written from the St. Louis airport.