Notes from Iraq: I Tapped My Eye

Students in a successful training class

*Lakewood native Eric Smith has been serving in Iraq since May. Major Smith is stationed at Forward Operating Base McHenry, near Kirkuk.*

“Pass me up a bottle of water.” The gunner reached down from his perch halfway out of the top of the MRAP while keeping one hand on the machine gun he was using to provide cover for our vehicle. Matt, our interpreter, who was sitting closest to the cooler in the back of the vehicle, handed him a bottle.

“Thanks”. We were on our way to visit one of our Civilian Service Corps (CSC) companies. These are organizations we have created based on the Civilian Conservation Corps that employed thousands of Americans during the Great Depression. Each company is focused on a vocational subject area and employs roughly one hundred men. They receive job training and then use that training on civic development projects. To get the program up and running, we’ve had to struggle through language difficulties, cultural barriers, and our own bureaucracy. The companies have been in the implementation phase for only several weeks and we have to visit each site every day to check on progress.

In the town of Riyadh (not to be confused with the city in Saudi Arabia) we have two CSCs: Riyadh Construction and Riyadh Roadbuilding. Both are run by Iraqi companies we’ve contracted to provide teachers, training equipment, and the training site. The combination of training plans and project management that these projects require, utilizing instructors imported from Kirkuk and Baghdad to teach poor, rural students, would be difficult in the best of times. With the strained and creaking infrastructure, and just-emerging private business class in our area, getting these projects off the ground is a challenge. And there are the insurgents. Enemy attacks have slightly increased, so my MRAP crew was on edge as we drove to Riyadh. Every pedestrian we saw, every vehicle, every piece of roadside trash was evaluated by the driver and gunner and then called over the radio. “Havoc Two, check out those three men on the north side of the road.” “Roger, I’ve got a pile of something over here, looks like it might be plastic bags.” “Three o’clock, man on a cell phone, is he looking at us?” “Watch that red Toyota on the left. Looks like three females in the back.” “Two donkeys crossing the road – wait – they’ve gone back. Road clear.”

Amidst the intercom patois, without warning, the gunner yelped in pain and fell down into the vehicle, simultaneously letting loose with an impressive stream of expletives over the intercom. “What is it? What’s going on?” The driver asked. We heard a thunk as something landed inside the MRAP. We heard some cursing. “I got hit in the head.” The gunner answered as he readjusted his helmet. “What is it? What hit you?” The driver’s excitement was increasing. “I didn’t get hit anywhere else, just the head,” answered the gunner. “Did it fall in the truck? What fell in the truck?” The driver’s voice raised an octave. “I didn’t see who threw it.” “IS THERE A GRENADE IN THE TRUCK?!” The driver was apoplectic. “No, just a rock. Lucky shot from some kid I guess.” “Jeez, you gotta’ tell us that next time. I thought we were screwed for a minute there.”

When we pulled up in front of the Riyadh Road Construction training site, one hundred men in blue jumpsuits and hardhats were milling about, smoking. At the sight of the American vehicles turning in to the gravel lot in front, all one hundred simultaneously jammed their cigarettes in their pockets and ran into the building. I climbed out of the MRAP and walked to the classrooms where every student was sitting in orderly rows, notebooks open on their desks, staring intently in silence with feigned interest at a blank chalkboard. “Go get the site manager,” I told Matt. “We have to talk.”

The site manager popped out from around the building accompanied by a monster of a man in a worn dish-dasha. I told Matt, “Ask him what the students are doing now.” The manager explained that things were just getting started, the students were studying very hard, and for the next two weeks they were going to be learning how “to clean the shoulders of the road.” Bemused, I asked him how he was going to teach “cleaning the shoulders of the road” eight hours a day, six days a week, for two weeks. Something must have been lost in translation. At this point the giant man (who turned out to be the building caretaker) asked if we wanted to come drink some tea. I politely declined, not wanting to spend too long at the site, but told him I would be happy to accept his invitation next time I visited. He started tapping his eyelid with his finger, making me think of tapping a saucer with a sausage. Meanwhile, the manager was still trying to explain to me what instruction was occurring while all the students continued to study the blank chalkboard. “He says `I touch my eye’” Matt told me, referring to the caretaker’s response to my declining the tea invitation. “Iraqis say that when they have invited you to their home and you promise to come back.” I understood it as a colloquialism equivalent to “we’ll see” or “I’ll keep my eye out for you.”

Meanwhile, I started to lose patience with the manager’s justification for his poor performance. I pointed out that you can’t teach people to clean the road for two weeks, I can see that no teaching is going on, and none of the students were in class when we arrived. He assured me everything would be fixed, it would just take a few more days, supplies were enroute but delayed, the students were tired from fasting during Ramadan, etc., etc. I told him I would be back in a few days and I was going to contact the contractor in Baghdad to notify them the terms of the contract were not being adhered to. We started to say our goodbyes and climb back into the vehicles to move on to Riyadh Construction, to repeat the scene at a different location, with a different company. As I said goodbye to the manager, I tapped my eye.

*Major Eric Smith is serving in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division. The division’s home base is Ft. Drum in Watertown, New York where Major Smith lives with his wife Dina, three year old twins Kirsten and Skyler, and one year old son Neil. The son of Pam and Tom Smith of Lakewood, Major Smith graduated from Lakewood High School in 1990 and was commissioned into the US Army after graduation from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. *

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Volume 4, Issue 24, Posted 7:01 PM, 10.12.2008