The feeling begins.

Taking a break from coding and house cleaning — I have a birthday party here tomorrow night, and my house is a wreck.

I’ve decided, tentatively, to blog about my current unique situation. People seem interested in how this came about and what I’m doing to get ready to go to Iraq. (I’m pretty sure it’s going to be Iraq; it might also be Afghanistan, I’m told.)

There are a few things I feel a bit…sketchy about putting out in public, for various reasons. I’d prefer not to name the company I’m working for at this juncture. It’s not a secret or anything, by any means; but I’m becoming increasingly aware of the nature of public discourse. I have no idea who’s reading this, who could be Googling various terms. And my thoughts and opinions do not represent anyone but myself, so why not just leave it at that?

There are other things I don’t think I can tell you, because I’m going to be getting a “secret” level security clearance, and I don’t want to jeopardize that, so I’m erring on the side of caution.

With that in mind…..

So far my new job is great, if oddly schizophrenic. My duties are, as I’ve mentioned, two-fold: to develop an interface for a web-based software package, and to deploy, support and provide training for that software to military hospitals in Iraq. The former involves sitting around in my home office in my big terry-cloth boxing shorts, listening to David Bowie and building CSS guidelines and doing graphic design. The latter involves hauling my ass around a war zone in a Black Hawk with a spare server in my bag.

These are not similar tasks.

On Tuesday morning — the morning of my 31st birthday, as it happened — I joined in on a conference call to orient those of us who will be going “downstream”, as the people in the company refer to overseas deployment. (I find this really interesting; I’m assuming the “stream” part of “downstream” refers here to the data stream. This is a different metaphor than a lot of expat workers I’ve known use. They refer to it as being “in country”, the way Vietnam vets used to. Then again, a lot of the expat workers I’ve known were engineers with my grandfather, and several of them actually were Vietnam vets, so maybe that’s where the terminology came from.)

The orientation scared the shit out of me on several levels. The sheer amount of paperwork involved in getting a security clearance is astonishing. There’s several rounds of vaccines as well, including anthrax.

And then there’s the whole “getting shot at” part. When I first heard about this job a few weeks ago, I assumed that “going to Iraq”  would be like when my grandfather would go to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait when I was a kid — I’d be put up in a hotel somewhere in the utterly safe Green Zone, where I would occasionally venture out into the wilderness to bring fire to the mortals.

Not exactly. No hotel for me, and the Green Zone apparently isn’t as safe as I thought. I was warned about what to do when — not if — mortar fire came in. The gentleman leading the orientation, who serves as a sort of security officer for my company if I understood correctly, told us to expect to be shot at when traveling by air. We won’t be traveling by ground at all, apparently, because it’s incredibly dangerous. (Visions of the opening reel of Iron Man crossed my mind.)

“You’re just gonna have to get used to it,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been riding along in a Black Hawk when I heard shots popping off. The machine gunner next to you’s gonna be firing. There are bad guys and they want to kill you.”

Odd, for someone who has been so utterly ambiguous about the whole conflict over there, to think of “good guys” and “bad guys”. But I think the security officer gave me all the answer I need: the bad guys want to kill you. Anything beyond that, while I’m over there, will have to wait.

I spent the rest of the day with a sort of sinking feeling in my stomach. It’s one thing to talk about going into a war zone as a journalist; it’s another to realize that, if all goes according to plan, you’re actually going to do it, not as an observer but as a sort of sideline participant, in six months.

I am not ready for this.

But I might be, in six months. I am going to do everything in my power to get myself ready. I’m going on a relatively strict diet and exercise regimen. Exercise is a bit tricky for me, because of my torn rotator cuff and trick knees, but I’m going to do my best. I’m going to try and quit or seriously curtail my smoking before I leave. I want to be in at least reasonable shape when I arrive in Baghdad, if not full-on Gerry-Butler-in-300 shape.

I’m also going to be taking a course or two on gun safety and marksmanship. I think I need to know how to load and fire a pistol. (I already know how to fire an AK-47, but I’m going to work on that as well.) I’m also pondering taking a course on urban escape and evasion.

If that sounds paranoid, well…so be it. The other guys I’m going with are doing the same thing. Because this isn’t a fucking game, and even if we’re non-combatants we’re going to be in a war zone, and we’re going to be targets. I’d rather know how to get my Jason Bourne on and never, ever need to use those skills than find myself on my knees in front of a video camera while some asshole hacks my head off with a rusty bayonet.

(And yes, I’ve thought about that. What I’d do if I got kidnapped. The answer? Do my best to kill every motherfucker I see, because these dudes aren’t really about ransom demands. They take Americans and they kill them and they put it on YouTube so the world can see. If I get grabbed, I think I’m going to assume that I’m dead, and I’m going to do whatever I can to get out…because if I don’t, I end up on as the Grisly-Ass Video Of The Day.)

Finally, I’m learning Arabic. A friend loaned me the Rosetta Stone language course for MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) and I’ve also got Arabic For Dummies. I was told it wouldn’t be absolutely necessary — I won’t be directly interacting with a lot of native speakers, and there will be translators available for when I do — but again, it can’t hurt.

A couple of people have tried to dissuade me from doing this, because of the danger. But I can’t back out, for a number of reasons. The money is astonishing for someone like me with no real career track record and no college degree. (I’m not going to tell you what I’ll be making on top of my salary as a per diem when I’m downstream, but it’s…impressive.)

It’s also a chance to quit sitting in the cheap seats and go out there and do something to help the world. The software I’m working on might — in fact, probably will — save lives. Not just the lives of American soldiers, which would be worthwhile enough, but also civilians and even enemy combatants. I will actually be doing something that makes the world a better place. And that, to me, is worth the danger.

And there’s the other reason, the one you might not understand: I can’t turn this down, can’t walk away, because I’ve said I’ve wanted to do it for at least a decade, and because I’ve talked enough shit from where I sit comfortably in the middle of the wealthiest country in the world. To back off would be a pussy move. I have to have the courage of my own convictions, and I have to be able to back up all the shit I’ve talked for so long.

So that’s that, then. As long as I can pass the security checks — which my co-workers assure me won’t be a problem, though I’m not so sure myself — we’re doing this thing.

So that’s where we are right now. And I need to pull the laundry out of the dryer, and get back to my CSS.

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  1. “The money is astonishing for someone like me with no real career track record and no college degree.”

    Gee, Josh, why do you think that is? You’re a smart guy…you know why…

    Do yourself a favor before you go: Visit a VA hospital and see what kind of “medical treatment” you can expect to get if you do come back…and not necessarily in one piece. Is it REALLY worth taking those risks because the money is that tempting?

    Do you want to risk your life because of a temporary financial situation or risk a silly label like pussy if you don’t?

  2. This is quite an undertaking and I am impressed with your conviction to move forward with this.

    You’re not heading that way for months, but I still wish you the best of luck with this project, and with your efforts to work yourself into shape for this.

    Also, if you’re looking for fulfilling diet staples… brown rice. Brown rice will fill you up and it’s got tons of fiber and good carbohydrates. One cup with 2 cups water boiled then simmered for 40 minutes will do the trick for any meal during the day.

  3. Heh. I was in your exact same position, getting ready to travel to Iraq for the exact same thing five years ago. Slightly different context for my software (military command post rather than a hospital) but same place and same activities.

    I was there for a total of five weeks, mostly in Baghdad, mostly located near BIAP with weekly jaunts to forward posts around the city.

    I can condense my advice to three convenient bullet points: 1) You get used to being shot at remarkably quickly. That’s when it gets dangerous. 2) Preparation is good, but you won’t be able to prepare for everything. Realize and accept that going in. Trust yourself to handle situations as they evolve, and always look to learn from people around you. 3) Always, ALWAYS bring these things with you wherever you go: a) a leatherman with a sawblade and pliers b) a pocketable LED flashlight, c) a good book, because you’re going to be waiting around a lot. 🙂

    My posts about Iraq are here:

    Feel free to drop me a line if you want to chat about it sometime.

  4. After reading Matt’s report about the thick dust and grime that’s eternally hanging and blowing in the air in Baghdad, I wonder how do they protect computer and electronic equipment, especially laptops and the like? I assume they use vinyl keyboard protectors and stuff like that.

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