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`O-dark hundred" - Letter from Kuwait

By Bradford Felker, M.D.

Islander Dr. Bradford Felker, a physician with the Veteran's Administration, is an officer in the Navy Reserve. He left for Kuwait in February. This is the first of several letters he has written home. It is shared with us by his family.

Greetings from the ``Big Sandbox'' where everyone does not play so well together.

I have been trying to get a few minutes to update everyone for some time. We have been very busy. First, I want to thank everyone for all the support you have provided Tammy and the girls. You will never know how much this support means to me. Knowing that they are well cared for makes this task so much easier. I am proud to be in uniform and serving my country. I am also proud to represent my community.

Let's start at the beginning. I arrived in Gulfport, Miss., late one night. We were put into a truck and brought to a Navy Sea Bee training base. The first week was spent getting processed from the reserve side to the military side. We were broken into groups and then had to march from one building to another. For many of us medical types, this was our first experience marching. We were a mess. People stopped, stared, and laughed. Cars stopped and passengers pointed. Nothing moved quickly those days, vast amounts of paperwork, much sitting around until it was time to march off to another direction, or in our case, several different directions. By the end of the week, we actually started to get the hang of marching.

The next week of preparation was more interesting, if not a whole lot more sobering. We started getting training for going to Kuwait and Iraq. This included many slide shows on IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). We saw all kinds of pictures of them, learned what to look out for on the road, and watched videos of convoys that were attacked. One video was filmed from within a Humvee looking from the backseat to out the front window. You could see the legs of the two soldiers sitting in the back. As the video ran, you could hear normal radio traffic. All looked very routine until there was an explosion, the Humvee filled with smoke and one of the soldiers in the back could be seen and heard writhing in pain. This got our attention. The officer ran the video again. This time we were really paying attention. There was an abandoned blue van that was detonated as the Humvee drove by. The saddest part of all was there were three small Iraqi children walking up to an ice cream stand who were walking by the van when it was detonated. They were literally blown away. Next, we had a whole day training on defense from chemical, biological and radiological attacks. The day ended with us getting into full MOPP gear (I already forgot what MOPP stands for) to protect from chemical attack. In groups we were then marched into these cement buildings where we were exposed to CS gas (like tear gas). I got a mouthful of the stuff, quite nasty. The week ended with training on a 9mm Berretta which is now the standard pistol used by the military. This included a trip to the firing range which also included a 200 yard firing range for M16s. As part of our training we were told ``not to engage any wildlife'' that might enter onto the firing range. Evidently, deer occasionally wander onto one of the ranges. All and all, the training was outstanding. I got a much better impression that at least the military knows what it is doing over there.

On the day we left for Kuwait, we received our smallpox vaccination, which included 15 pokes with a needle. It actually was not bad at the time; the problem has been living with it since, as it has become a big painful blister and left me with fever and chills one day. We loaded onto the plane at 0230, why that time, I don't know. I was told that the military times everything so that it takes place at night here. Evidently the bad guys don't like to cause problems at night, they like to sleep (hmmm, very smart this enemy). We flew in a Continental 777 that is used to transport troops. The flight staff (flight attendants and pilots) are all volunteers and receive special training. They were great. There was a tide of food that flowed. We flew from Gulfport to Germany. Everyone either slept or was in a good mood. We refueled, and then flew to Kuwait. One could feel the anxiety level increase as the flight took us over Iraq. There were screens that showed our progress over a map that included air speed and altitude. As we entered Iraq, our airspeed and altitude increased significantly. As we flew over oil fields one could see the flares where they were burning off natural gas.

We landed at Kuwait International Airport and were met by several heavily armed soldiers who quickly whisked us off the tarmac into guarded buses. All the buses had green shades to keep others from looking in. To drive anywhere in Kuwait, one must have several heavily armed soldiers (known as shooters) and our bus was no exception. We left the airport at ``O-dark thirty'' and traveled with an armed convoy to Camp Doha. It would seem 200 medical types in buses are considered a prime ``soft target.'' In the bus everyone was very quiet and rode hunched over. People will say they were trying to sleep, but I don't think anyone could sleep. The road we were on had several recent attacks by terrorists and had been recently closed to clear several IEDs.

At Camp Doha, we received several orientations on appropriate security behaviors now that we were in a combat zone (all of Kuwait at this point) and then got breakfast. We then loaded back into the buses with our very much appreciated shooters and drove several hours to Camp Arifjan. However, I don't want to give the impression it is that dangerous in Kuwait. It is much worse in Iraq.

Camp Arifjan is one strange place. I consider myself very fortunate to be stationed at this point at Camp Arifjan. This is clearly considered ``good duty.'' To those returning from Iraq, it is nicknamed ``Disneyland.'' There are two exchanges (junk food, CDs, DVDs, some clothes, magazines, and paperbacks), a pizza place, a Burger King, a Subway, and even a Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors. There are several gyms (the military have good gyms), a pool, laundry services and the hugest dining hall you can imagine. Most everyone coming and going from Iraq goes through Camp Arifjan. It is huge and quite surreal. The food in the DFAC is free and voluminous. There are always several main courses, a short-order line (burgers, etc), drinks, salad, and the most amazing dessert bar you can imagine. There are always several types of cakes and pies, ice creams and cookies. Yes, war is hell. Forget losing weight.

I currently live in Zone 2 of this huge camp. There are vast amounts of supplies. One can see hundreds of Humvees getting up-armored. There are hundreds of Bradleys and other fighting vehicles. Shipping containers are stacked everywhere. It looks similar to docks in Seattle. Lit all night by powerful lights, people are out at all hours. Loud generators run 24/7. Most everyone here is heavily armed. Many carry their M16s and 9MMs with them everywhere including the dining halls.

I am currently living in the warehouse until the unit we are relieving actually leaves. It is really a warehouse that probably holds well over a thousand troopes (about 1,400 by my calculations). We are all packed in together on bunk beds. It is very loud in the warehouse or as we like to call it ``ware hell.'' For those Indian Princess veterans, who remember the snoring and such, just multiply by a thousand or so and you get the idea. Lights go out at 2300 and come on at 0500. As units come and go, they, for the most part, only stay a couple of days in the warehouse. Now that I have been there a week, I am an ``old timer'' of the place. We are looking forward to moving into our new berthing ASAP.

The weather so far has been great. Sunny, sunny, sunny, in the mid 70s each day and into the mid-40s at night. The wind blows all the time. So far, no sand storms. At this point there is this fine sand that gets blown into everything (eyes, mouth, ears, hair, etc). It is not too bad. I am told the sand-storms are something else. They liken it to dermabrasion with a hair dryer. We shall see. Kuwait is a surprisingly dirty, smelly, place. There is no green to be seen. Just sand and rocks on this hard-packed earth. While driving to Camp Arifjan, I was saddened to see all the trash and abandoned wrecked cars everywhere. There seems to be little civic pride out here in the desert. It is surprising for one of the richest countries on the planet. The Kuwaitis drive like madmen. There are no traffic laws, everyone drives very fast, lanes either coming or going are only suggestions. For better or worse, we won't be able to experience much of Kuwait. Security at this time is very high and we will not be allowed off base. Terrorist activity has recently increased significantly in Kuwait. That's OK; I'll stay here in Disneyland.

We have started work. Mental health is very busy. It is by far the busiest service. This is good news/bad news. Bad for all those troops that need services and good news for me as I stay busy and don't have time to think of home. It looks like I have been made department head for Mental Health. I will be responsible for all psychiatric care for all troops in Kuwait. The Mental Health Clinic is in a fixed building and interestingly, the hospital (operating rooms, ICUs, wards, lab, and x-ray) is in a tent hospital. The tent hospital is an incredible feat of technology.

One reason we are so busy is that we are in the middle of ``the surge'' which is the rotation of troops. Just about everyone here is either rotating in or rotating out. So, there are huge numbers of troops here at this time.

So far the work has been very rewarding. We have seen all kinds of psychiatric cases. Not as much combat-related stress yet as this part of ``the surge'' are mainly those arriving in country. The next part of ``the surge'' will bring those from Iraq. Sadly, I have chatted with many Marines, Army and Guard troops while waiting in line at various places. When I ask them about their experiences in Iraq, many become visibly different, almost numb, say it was OK, and look off with that 1000-yard stare. They suddenly look 10 years older. Though I miss my family very much, in some way, I am glad to be here helping out these kids. It feels good to be providing a service for so many in definite need of help. It feels good to be part of something much bigger than myself and it does feel very good to serve our country.

The best thing about the military is the people. They come from all over the country. Forty-eight of the fifty states are represented. Fleet Hospital Dallas (our unit) has several hundred assigned to it. We are tasked with providing all medical services in Kuwait. The clinical skill set of these providers is most impressive.

So far, morale here is good. It would be better if we knew when we were coming home. Rumors fly about our end date as well as lots of other things every day. Clearly, rumor control will be important. If one listened and believed everything they heard, they would be soon enrolled in our mental health clinic.

So, I have to close now. We have a mass casualty drill to attend. I am sure I have left much out.

Once again, I want to thank everyone for all the support and encouragement. It means a great deal to me, Tammy and the girls.

Take care,

Brad

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