LTC Dingman is from the New England area and has a private practice there when he is not on duty as part of his contract with the Army National Guard.
We sat down and began our friendly interrogation of one another. After explaining our project to him it turns out that the Colonel has dabbled in creating murals himself and when he mentioned that the tribute to the Boston Red Sox was his work, we both knew it well as we had documented that the day prior during our hunt. LTC Dingman joined the Guard during medical school as many others do. During one of his classes a recruiter was invited and after asking if any of the current students needed some extra money and tuition repayment, the Colonel couldn’t resist the offer. He has been deployed a few times prior all of which have taken him to Iraq.
When he spoke about his career choice and the work he has done for the Army, you can see his passion for the warfighters. Back at home, his specialty is pediatric psychiatry and he found this
quite useful here in for a few reasons. First, since many of these men and women have joined right out of high school his background in pediatrics serves them well. Also, as many of the troops have families and children of their own, once they find out about the Colonel’s specialty, they often open up more about the sacrifices of their wives and children and inquire as to his professional opinion on the mental health of their family. LTC Dingman truly enjoys his work and
spends as much time as he can talking with and getting to know everyone in his area of operation. A man more dedicated to the mental health of this Nation’s warfighters would be hard, if not impossible, to find.
Matthew is in his mid-50s with wavy salt and pepper hair, his smile is contagious and boarders on mischievous. We all load up in the government issued Ford F-150 and begin our journey towards the edge of post. Matthew asks about the project and our interest in the art in and around Iraq. He is a wealth of knowledge about Iraqi culture and its history. Matthew was born in Baghdad and spent his youth there, attending Baghdad University. After graduating he moved to the US and spent his adulthood in southern California where he still resides today. The information and first-hand accounts he yielded to us would fill hundreds of pages.
We headed towards the outer gate to turn around and begin to capture these amazing murals created by the local populace. Matthew, the attentive host that he is, gave us the background of the security operations involved with the locals having access to the airport. We then began the hour’s long retrace of our steps, capturing images of the almost 100 separate murals lining the road towards the inner gate. These murals depicted life in what was once Basrah, before the winds of progress brought sand and an airport in place of the marshes and war and uncertainty
finished off the rest of the tourists. Looking at these beautiful creations one can imagine why this has been proposed as the location of the Garden of Eden. Palm trees lining the river, tall grass hiding the edges of the canals that gave Basrah the nickname, Venice of the Middle East. Interspersed between the historical memorials to a city lost, were paintings of the airport, traffic
control tower and modern progress. I think to myself how long this must have taken them, in heat above 120 and as if he read my mind, Matthew states that each window into the past took
just a day or so, incredible. These murals are at least 20 feet by 10 feet if not bigger and the fact
that the painter only took days and not weeks is near impossible to imagine.
We mention the mistakes of the war and of what transpired during the beginning of the US occupation and I bring up Bremer. Matthew’s face turns a brighter red and I can feel the disgust in the air now. He has the same questions as most do, what on earth qualified Bremer as the US Envoy? How could he sack the entire Iraqi army and send them along with their guns to hungry families at home? The mistakes of this war continue their outward rippling over 8 years after the making. Basrah shows the scares of decades of misdirected progress and almost constant war.
What could this place have been? What has the world missed out on and will never have the chance to know what could have been? God chose this place as his Garden of Eden, perhaps one day it will reemerge as the Venice of the Middle East or the world’s new Eden. For now, it couldn’t be much farther from either location.
After making our way back inside the relative safety of our military bubble, we headed towards “The Marshmallow” or so called that because of the uncanny resemblance the two story building had with the giant processed sugar ball. We were slated to meet with the members of the 912th Forward Surgical Team (FST) out of New England. This was their 3rd deployment since the Iraq invasion and, as they put it, "we came and turned on the lights and now we are shutting them off". They are supposedly the last FST that will be deployed to Basrah as the US is slated to pull all of her troop’s home by the end of the year.
We interviewed Capt. Burlock as he has the most ornate and detailed of the crew. His entire
upper body is inked, each mural holding personal meaning to him. If he was a regular Joe, even a senior enlisted man, I wouldn’t have been so interested, however, he is a Captain, an officer and this much ink on an officer is rare. He is a quiet man, but I suspect it’s because we are strangers in his world. He has a twinkle in his eye that alludes to a different personality, perhaps one that once seen, could scare a Grizzly back into hibernation. At any rate he is gracious and allows us to prod and poke, even after waking him from a much needed nap.
Other men in the unit trickle in and we soon set up a group photo to capture their “meat tags” which are basically dog-tags tattooed on your side for, well, just in case. We exchange emails and phone numbers and take more photos. Their story is one that is heard quite often, citizen soldiers pulled far from their homes to serve a nation overseas, in a war that took longer than the
public wanted. These men are tough, their lives uprooted not once, but three times and speaking with them you can see they have no regrets, they would do it all over again, not for glory or
country but for their buddy on their right and on their left. These men know honor and courage but more than anything, they know commitment to each other and that is sets them apart from the rest, that true knowledge of commitment.
We left and headed back to our living quarters for the night another day in the desert finished.
The thought of going home washing over me, though I had only been in the region less than a month, I was already homesick and ready to see some greenery, creeks and rivers, some big puffy clouds and hopefully rain. Exhaustion sweeping over me, sleep not far behind, the modern marvel of air conditioning buzzing hard in the darkness. My thoughts drift out of focus, the
darkness washing out my consciousness.
Our living space, little trailers surrounded by enormous T-walls, semi-portable barriers designed to deflect indirect fire, was quiet, no movement and the sun had yet to breach the horizon. I walked towards the bunkers looking around to see if anyone had the same idea. Next to the bunker two men, one in the Army issued Physical Fitness uniform and the other in civilian clothes, stood near sleepily waiting for the event to pass.
Again, “In-coming, In-coming” and this followed by an even closer impact, close enough to move the natives of this base into the bunker to which I followed on instinct. Memories of Ramadi seemed as fresh as yesterday now, the mortaring and constant rocket-attacks. We exited to see the results, no cloud, no smoke and then again, the ominous warning. However, it was followed by the burst from the C-RAM, an automated anti-indirect fire weapon that is fast and accurate
enough to shoot down these mortars in mid-flight. This time it was accurate and the round burst into sparks just over the horizon as the sun began to infiltrate the darkness. Again, the dull rumble at the incoming rounds continued to hit, ever closer still. In between the incoming rounds, you can hear the sound of small arms fire, AK rifles going off on full-auto and the 240-B, the 7.62mm counterpart firing back. This went on for what seemed to be forever as I was tired and ready to get back to my life outside of the combat these men and women have been facing
for over a decade. Less than 30 minutes from the time my eyes opened, the fighting was finished and I headed for my bunk, still 4 hours until our slated departure time. As I lay there in my bed, remembering my days in the Army with the 54thEngineer Battalion, I could almost see the memories play across my eyelids in HD. Watching the smoke rise from across the DFAC when the insurgents got lucky and hit the living quarters of some soldiers on the camp. I remember watching the smoke rise and all of us thinking but certainly not saying that it could have been one of us.
Thinking about the small arms fire we all heard in the background during the early morning assault and I wondered how many people just died. Hopefully none of our warfighters or those in the Iraqi Army and security forces, but what about the other side? Though these men chose to attack this coalition base which assuredly had superior firepower, their lives have been snuffed out. Perhaps by one of our soldiers or marines, some 18 year old just out of high school now has a taste of killing, his conscience burdened with the taking of human lives. His mind has those images forever burned into his brain, in High Definition. That changes people, whether young or old, strong or weak, killing another person, taking their life whether justified or not, changes you.
Civilians back home rarely if ever think of what they have asked these men and women to do in their place, on their behalf. Now with the recent death of Bin Laden, more and more citizens back home believe that the war against Al Qaeda is over and with the withdraw of US forces in Iraq swiftly approaching, the danger, the bullets and IEDs, the killing of people is but a horrible memory. Sitting at home in the States I can see how one might assume that, even believe it, but here, thousands of miles away from the freedom of thought that exists in our bubble of civilization, the rockets and mortars feel quite real, the bullets still deadly, the killing and war continues, whether our voting public believes it or not.
It will be up to the greater population of our nation and the world to take initiative at striving for understanding at the events that have taken place over the past decade plus. Perhaps the knowledge of what happened, the mistakes of yet another war will forever change how we as a nation go about sending our sons and daughters into places that require not just dangerous actions but the actions that most of us would be unwilling to do. The age old game, killing in the name of…