31 January 2011

Strangers in Strange Lands

Somewhere in the Sherpa family video vault, there's a Vietnam-era film introduced by John Wayne, in which a younger version of my dad briefly appears. No, it's not "The Green Berets." Rather, the film depicts the life of C-130 Hercules crews flying tactical airlift missions. "Klong Hopper Airlines," they called themselves.

Dad appears toward the tail end of the program, just after a shot of someone apparently ringing last call at an unidentified drinking establishment. Mugging for the camera, he smiles and says something sarcastic like: "Vietnam? Beautiful country! Sure, I'd come back ... in 20 or 30 years!"

Regular readers of Red Bull Rising blog have already heard the story about how I got a combat patch for peacekeeping duty. Along with 500 other Iowa National Guard troops of the 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry "Ironman" Regiment (1/133rd Inf.), I deployed to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula as a member of the Multinational Force and Observers (M.F.O.).

Our mission was to "observe and report" on military aircraft, vehicles, and vessels in the border areas between Egypt and Israel, in accordance with the Camp David Accords of 1978. At any time, a significant portion of the unit were located in squad- or platoon-sized observation posts, scattered across the desert.

Our contact with the local bedouin was minimal. Our contact with the people of the Egyptian "mainland," for lack of a better term, was even less. Still, we met repair technicians and cafeteria workers when they came to our bases, and met shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and tour guides when during our time off. Part of our mission, our U.S. task force commander told us, was to see the world and meet the people.

I'm sure we spent plenty of our paychecks, too, out on the economy. That was part of the mission, too.

Out in the desert, we weren't allowed to use any technology not in existence when the treaty was written--no frequency-hopping radios, no night-vision goggles, totally old-school. And our live ammunition was locked up where we could get to it, but only if we really, really, really needed it. That level of need was characterized as "only if you want to start (or react to) an international incident." At one observation post, some classical wag had spray-painted the red ammo container with the label "Pandora's Box."

I think of Egypt often, particularly when I hear hometown talk of pulling U.S. troops out of this country or that. After all, by the time of our rotation, our little low-key peacekeeping force had been performing a seemingly "temporary" mission for 25 years and counting. U.S. troops--mostly National Guard--are still routinely deployed there.

While most of our military buildings were portable trailers, however, ritzy Red Sea hotels had sprung up on the sands just outside the ranges of our machine guns. The peace and stability created by our presence--not just U.S. troops, but soldiers from Canada and Colombia, France and Fiji--created an opportunity for economic development.

Opportunity for whom? That's another question, one way above the pay-grade of this former citizen-soldier. Still, how much corruption and control can the average Joe or Jaan tolerate before he takes to the streets?

Egypt boasts the second-largest Arabian economy; only Saudi Arabia's is larger. Bringing in more than $10 billion (U.S.) annually, some 11 percent of the Egyptian Gross Domestic Product (G.D.P.) is based on tourism. Whenever terrorists have wanted to hurt the Egyptian national government, they have targeted tourists with guns, bombs, and kidnapping attempts. I wonder how tourism will fare with a full-blown popular uprising in the streets. Already, air-travel into Egypt has been curtailed. The pyramids have been cordoned off. The streets of Cairo, always surging with people, are now flooded with them.

My 6-year-old daughter Lena often asks me about my short time in Egypt, and regularly checks out library books about pyramids and mummies. She's particularly taken with one photo book, which depicts the daily life of a little girl in modern Egypt. She'd like to visit someday, she says. I'd like to take you there, I tell her. It is a fascinating place, rich with history, and full of friendly, creative, and hard-working people. The people don't always think or act like we do, I say, but living and working with them was certainly never boring.

Given the current unrest in Egypt, I hope that my handful of former colleagues are OK, and that their families are OK, and that tomorrow brings them a better world. Inshallah.

Last December, a member of the Iowa National Guard's 734th Agri-business Development Team (A.D.T.), currently deployed to Afghanistan, quoted a provincial subgovernor named Mahmood: “I hope you provide us enough help so you can leave here and return to your country ... Then, you can come back here in a few years as tourists.”

I like the optimistic logic of that statement: Help us, but only just enough. Go home to your own country, but come back as tourists.

Sometimes we Americans saddle up like John Wayne, other times we just sidle up to the bar. Any casual conversations with Egyptians regarding their president Hosni Mubarak would seemingly always include the observation that, "Egypt has always been ruled by Pharaohs ..." I'm sure I'm not the first U.S. veteran to fondly remember the people with whom he worked, but who always felt uneasy about whether his presence as a soldier somehow contributed to indigenous corruption, drug-trafficking, or political oppression.

I hadn't realized it until this past week, but, having been there, I became emotionally invested in the people of Egypt. Whatever happens, I hope they come out all right in all this. Maybe that was part of the mission, too.

Egypt? Beautiful country. Sure, I'd come back.


  1. Favorite photo of my Dad was one in which he's on a camel sitting in front of the pyramids. I'd love to go there, and someday I will.
    As far as Vietnam...we're working on it.

  2. Sherpa, when you have a chance, give me an email or text on FB (johnjudyc@att.net). I have a question for you. And if the Muslim's take over in Egypt, you may be going back there sooner than you planned. I think where Egypt goes, there goes the middle east.

  3. This is off topic of this way cool post but followers of Red Bull might want to check out http://www.unknownsoldiersblog.com/2011/02/big-chill.html for news about some of our 34th Inf. Division soldier in Afghanistan. www.unknownsoldiersblog.com is an excellent blog in and of itself. Blessings and for those who pray, pray for Egypt and the middle east.

  4. @ Debbie: No, not so far-off-topic. I'm a big fan of Tom Sileo's work at "The Unknown Soldiers", as well as the Des Moines Register's Tony Leys (on whose reporting Tom's "big chill" post was based).

    You'll note that "The Unknown Soldiers" appears in the 'Love, Honor & Support' blog-roll in the right column of the Red Bull Rising blog. Debbie's right, everyone--check it out, and read it regularly!

  5. You really received a combat patch for the MFO Mission? What was the reasoning for you guys earning the patch? was there Some crazy stuff going on when you guys were there? did you guys just get the patch for being in a peace keeping area?

    1. Like the Vegas commercial says: "'Crazy Stuff' in the Sinai ... stays in the Sinai." Seriously, however, the region started heating up only after our rotation. The Taba Hilton was bombed in 2004. Bomb in Sharm el-Sheikh was 2005. I think there was an attempt vicinity North Camp that same year.

      There was a small arms attack on North Camp in 2012, reportedly involving "dozens of Bedouin."

      The patch figuratively showed up in our personnel files a few years after we'd returned home. A rotation subsequent to ours had requested it and gotten it approved, and it was retroactive. Our headquarters researched it, bought off on it, and posted it to our individual files.

      Keep in mind, a few years later, most of these Red Bull soldiers had other patches from which to choose, including their own division's. But in the early 2000s, when even civilians began to think "slick-sleeve" meant you hadn't deployed, the dragon patches were a welcome arrival.


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