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Two months shy of his law school graduation, Michael R. Moebes sat in a Decatur, Ga., coffee shop working on a paper about retirement planning. Then his cell phone rang. It was Mike Nave, Moebes’ colleague from the Tennessee Air National Guard. “I’ve got some bad news,” Nave said. “You’re the last person I want to hear those words from,” Moebes responded. “Well, you need to be here at the unit at 0700 Monday, OK?” Moebes stopped working on the paper. He’d have to leave his paralegal job at Drew Eckl & Farnham. Graduation, the bar exam and starting his career as a lawyer would have to wait. It was Saturday afternoon, March 15. The United States was gearing up for war in Iraq, and now, so was Moebes. He grew up in Nashville, Tenn., his father a pilot and his mother a homemaker. Supported by an Air Force ROTC scholarship, Moebes (pronounced “Moby’s”) graduated from the University of Alabama in 1997, having majored in business and planning a career in health care management. After a couple of years selling IBM products to hospitals, Moebes heeded the advice of a family friend who suggested a law degree might be more useful than an MBA in the increasingly legalistic business of health care. In the fall of 1999, he entered the night program at Georgia State University College of Law, aiming for graduation in May 2003. That was the same month Moebes was slated to finish his six-year ROTC commitment to the Tennessee Air National Guard. But the war against Saddam Hussein would extend his duty indefinitely. On the Saturday afternoon he was called up, Moebes was a 27-year-old captain who headed a four-person Aeromedical Evacuation Liaison Team (AELT). The team’s job would be to coordinate air evacuations of wounded soldiers from hospitals close to the fighting to American bases in Kuwait, Germany and Spain. WAR ON THE INTERNET When he wasn’t helping move patients to and from waiting airplanes and helicopters, Moebes fought his war on the Internet. Doctors would request that patients be evacuated to better-equipped hospitals, and Moebes would log on to a secure Web site — hosted more than 6,000 miles away in Illinois — and arrange the transportation. Working on the computer so often gave Moebes a rare opportunity for a soldier in a combat zone: He could communicate regularly with family and friends via e-mail, which he did through group messages to about 100 recipients. A natural storyteller, Moebes says writing e-mails was the highlight of his day, and those e-mails were no doubt a source of comfort for those close to him. Moebes’ messages also offer a gritty and compelling glimpse of the life of a soldier on the ground in Iraq. His account shows how, just as in the television show “M*A*S*H,” dedicated, homesick medical professionals treated truckloads of wounded soldiers while trying to maintain a semblance of a normal life. Military snafus and oddities became a part of daily life. On the way to Iraq, his unit’s Humvee was misplaced. Another day, he was forbidden from taking a shower because he wasn’t wearing the required Kevlar helmet and flak jacket. But like a modern-day Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre, Moebes and a buddy, Capt. Shane Gilliam, kept their sense of humor. They installed a wading pool in their tent, escaped the chow hall to eat in a local Iraqi restaurant and befriended National Guardsmen from another state who circumvented Army alcohol restrictions by concocting a home brew. Meanwhile, a stream of interesting characters crossed Moebes’ path. They included rescued prisoner of war Jessica Lynch, actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mohommed, an Iraqi translator who narrowly escaped the wrath of Uday Hussein. Moebes says he tried to keep his messages upbeat, so he sent nothing when he felt too depressed to write. But like the edgier moments of “M*A*S*H,” Moebes’ e-mails depict the grim realities of war. He wrote what it was like to carry a wounded GI, see a dead body, live through mortar attacks and stay awake when he couldn’t get the screams of a soldier out of his head. About a month after arriving in Iraq, Moebes explained in an e-mail how he’d figured out if someone had died during the night: “The army takes the generators used in the sleeping tents area to power cooling devices in the mortuary area. So, I’m always happy to see my fan working when the alarm goes off each morning.” ‘I WAS UPSET AND SCARED’ Moebes was not particularly surprised when his unit was activated. He’d trained one weekend a month for nearly six years, and the war had been debated in the United Nations for months. But nothing was able to prepare him adequately for the call that Saturday afternoon in March. After hanging up with Nave, Moebes says, “My chest was hurting so bad. I was upset and scared.” He went home and took a long run. The next 36 hours were a blur. He partied all night with friends who gathered to give him a proper send-off. He packed on Sunday morning, bringing both green cold-weather uniforms and desert gear because he wasn’t sure whether he was being sent to Turkey or Kuwait. Then he dropped by Drew Eckl & Farnham, the Midtown insurance defense firm where he worked as a paralegal. He sent an e-mail to his boss, Clayton H. Farnham, explaining why he wouldn’t be at work for a while and updating him on the status of cases. He left a series of Post-it notes around the office saying goodbye to his colleagues. What particularly worried Moebes, he says, was telling his mother about his orders. But she nearly had figured it out anyway. As Moebes was driving home to Nashville, where his unit was based, she called him on his cell phone. She told him it might be time to leave the Air National Guard, because she’d heard some groups in Nashville were being sent to the war. Too late, he told her. MISSING HIS GAS MASK Early Thursday morning, March 20 — early Wednesday evening, March 19 in the United States — the war started when President Bush ordered an air attack to kill Saddam. On Saturday, March 22, after a week of briefings, anthrax vaccinations and other preparation, Moebes arrived at the Southwest Airlines counter at the Nashville airport with his team — Gilliam, the flight nurse; Master Sgt. Charlie Martin, a Vietnam-era veteran radio operator; and Senior Airman Theresa MacDonald, also a radio operator. Ordered by the military to don civilian clothing when traveling, Moebes wore a knit shirt and khaki pants. But he didn’t think he was fooling anyone. Along with five duffel bags, each with 70 pounds of gear, Moebes’ luggage included a plastic case containing two M-16 rifles and two M-9 pistols. Standing in line at the airline counter, he told a curious young boy that the box contained golf clubs. Moebes transferred in Baltimore to a military charter flight that was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with other Americans heading to the war. After stops in Ireland and Cyprus, they arrived in a tense Kuwait City late Sunday night. Before opening the doors, flight attendants put on gas masks. To the dismay of Moebes and his comrades, they realized their masks were checked below. Thirty minutes later, Moebes was at a briefing at the Americans’ Camp Wolf when Scud alarms went off. Still wearing their civilian clothes, the new arrivals were rushed into a bunker — basically a large metal box covered with sandbags. “People were crying,” Moebes says. Five days later, Moebes sent his first e-mail from the war. Edited excerpts of his messages appear below. March 28 i’m at ahmed al jaber air base right now. Gilliam and i drove here from camp wolf near kuwait city, the place we’ve been stationed since arriving sunday night. trip here was interesting. got to take the hummer on kuwait’s interstate system for about 45 minutes. had to wear a protective vest and helmet plus carry an M-16 b/c of terrorism threat (threatcon delta right now). i sleep in a tent w/ 9 other guys. it has a/c, so billeting isn’t bad. we have showers and a chow hall. i use hot sauce on every meal to make it edible. on the drive over, saw signs for a “kuwait camel racing club.” pretty funny. saw camels and goats running wild along either side of the interstate. roads themselves are nicer than ours, have lights in the median everywhere. Saw several land cruisers and 5-series BMWs on the road. there’s no middle class here; kuwaitis are all fairly wealthy; bedouins etc. are pretty poor. so, residents either have a $50k car or a camel. had 6 SCUD alert sirens my first 24 hours here. sucked. have to don full chemical ensemble and gas mask and then run into a bunker ’til the “all clear” siren/message. often these occur in the middle of the night, so we slept in our chem suits the first few nights. the chocolate chip cookies were a big hit on the flight over. soldiers from all over the U.S. said to “tell your mom these are great” and “thanks.” March 31 Gen. [Tommy] Franks [the commander of American forces] just stopped by our tent. We had lobster last night at chow. I was asked to help w/ a litter onload y’day. I’ve done this several times w/ empty litters or dummies or members of my Guard unit made-up w/ fake injuries. Never w/ real casualties. Kinda sad, but gave a tangible reason to appreciate what we do for the armed forces here. Odd to stand there holding one corner of a litter, inches away from a young stranger who had sustained wounds while fighting for our country. I wanted to ask questions or attempt humor, but I just stood silently instead and helped carry him (and each of the others) to the transport vehicle where he’d be prepared for air evac. March 31 we loaded jessica lynch today and sent her off in a c-17 to germany. sad. sherman was right. April 3 today it reached 103 degrees in our work tent. breezes make it not that bad, though. j. lynch looked like hell. it almost made me sick to see her. much worse that what cnn.com etc. lets on regarding her injuries. I was surprised to hear her moan in pain as her litter was carried from the army CSH [Combat Support Hospital]. I thought she was dead. Anyway, we were glad to see the plane leave for germany. shift is 8am-8pm 7 days a week. similar to an associate’s hours in a law firm, I suppose, right? drank over 4L of water today and still feel dehydrated! stuff’s good though. still get ice cream after lunch and dinner every day and still work out every evening and watch a movie every night before bed. no SCUD alarms last night so actually slept the entire night for the first time in days. Moebes says he knew Jessica Lynch was special because she had been a prisoner of war, but “I had no idea she’d been hailed as an American hero.” Lynch’s importance was evident from the entourage accompanying her, he adds. Other patients needing constant care had, at most, three medical attendants. While a camera crew covered the event, at least six or seven people came along with Lynch, including a chaplain and one of Lynch’s friends, he says. Also, Moebes says, Lynch’s evacuation was the only time he saw a full colonel come out to help on the flight line, and instead of an old C-141, the military sent a more up-to-date C-17 to transport Lynch, Moebes says. “Sherman was right,” Moebes explains, refers to the famous statement by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War: “War is hell.” April 6 a good change is that our work tent got a/c finally, but it’s not working real well — temp is still about 90. better than before. computers and comm equipment was shutting down b/c of the heat earlier. learned from some marines y’day that the [Iraqi] soldiers take off their uniforms and then stand in their civilian clothes, so we won’t shoot them. the guy I was talking to had been 30 miles outside baghdad when this happened. they got into their trucks to convoy. the iraqis began shooting. a bullet went through the back window and struck his hand. he got out (as did everyone else) and shot three of them. another was shot in the leg at close range and then killed his attacker. the guy I heard this from was 20 years old. anyway, I’m glad we were able to get them care. need to go. more missions to run. it’s 3am. hard to believe i was writing not long ago about carrying my first battle casualty litter patient. now my hands are too calloused to make a fist from carrying so many. April 10 just offloaded some marines from baghdad. they said they were greeted w/flowers, hugs, cheers, money, and cigarettes from the people there. to use one’s words, “it was like a f-in’ parade, sir. i never saw anything like it before.” they were cheerful in spite of their wounds, thanking us for the “lift” as we loaded their litters onto the ambus [a school bus converted into an ambulance]. one thanked me for the care they’d received. i said, “no, thank you. your job is a helluva lot harder than mine is.” cnn was there filming; they’d ridden w/ the plane and the patients. saw [medical correspondent] sanjay gupta (i didn’t know who he was but others did) there. talked to both the cameraman and him. cameraman lives in douglasville and was very friendly. had tattoos and a “mad dog” patch on his vest. funny guy. i think the worst aspect of this trip has been “prop wash.” walking through hot exhaust thrust into my face on a tarmac at 3-figure temperatures makes breathing, seeing, and walking hard. in other news, a not-so-happy event happened earlier this week — we had a close call. one of the guys here, “sgt. john doe,” told one of the admins [administrative staff] i work w/ to be late for her shift that day. when she asked “why” he just tapped the grip on his m-16 and said he needed to take care of something and that he didn’t want her around. he indicated he’d had enough of a couple of officers here (not me) and was going to “take them out.” she’d heard him talk before about being depressed and that he had to get home soon before his fiancee cheated on him etc. he didn’t smile or indicate he might be joking; he just tapped on his m-16. she told the CMSgt [chief master sergeant], and measures were immediately taken to send him to the states (actually, to confinement). one of the two he was “after” was my former classmate from MSC [Medical Service Corps] school. he does what i do during the opposite shift. i thought “doe” was a nice guy. he lent me his m-16 and a full magazine for gilliam and i’s trip to Jaber air base (we were required to be “locked and loaded” b/c of terrorism threats). she wondered if she’d done the right thing by reporting the threat. i think she did (and i told her so) b/c of what happened w/ the 101st earlier. i’ve seen a few patients come through here w/ gunshot wounds to the feet where the nurses think they were self-inflicted. rare though. other times, patients come through in shackles b/c of being homicidal or suicidal. too much stress, i guess. anyway, all the news for now. things are going well here now. someone told me tomorrow’s friday. i thought it was tuesday. funny. Moebes referred to the March 23 grenade attack that killed two soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division and wounded 14 others. Military prosecutors have accused a Muslim member of the division with murder and other charges stemming from the incident. Moebes says that psychiatric patients were the third or fourth biggest group of patients to come through his unit. The biggest group had battle wounds, followed by kidney stones (Moebes suspects these were caused by the extreme heat and dehydration) and hernias. Many of the psych patients were abused as children and had been in trouble much of the their lives, Moebes says. “I’d read their records and wonder how they got into the military in the first place,” he says. Others, he adds, just “got to the point where they’d had enough.” April 11 hey, finally got some mail. everyone else around here has been getting letters and packages for a while (they’ve been here a couple of weeks longer than i have). one of the girls had been writing me notes each day to compensate for my lack of success at mail call each evening. walked to a BX [Base Exchange, like a discount retailer] trailer on the other side of camp and got a portable dvd player. folks have asked if they could send me anything, so i think it’d be cool to get some dvds — maybe movies folks have seen already. i can send them back after i watch. during the day today, we brought in an iraqi EPW [enemy prisoner of war]. his wife and kids were injured and w/ him, too. sad that a little kid is barely alive in our CSH. i’m not sure what happened to him. i’ve decided that it’ll be music to my ears the first time i hear a toilet flush. i’m sick of port-o-johns. appreciate your porcelain for me this weekend, ok? April 12 couple of quality-of-life improvements were finally made here: 1. we can wear PT [physical training] gear to the MWR [Morale, Welfare and Recreation] tent (where the games and small weight room are) and showers. so, i finally got to do something i’ve wanted to do every day since arriving here — put on my new balance running shoes instead of combat boots. felt great on my calloused feet. 2. got a/c in the chow tent. a few days ago, the temp in there was 130 degrees. glad that’ll never happen again. watched “we were soldiers” dvd. gilliam only brought war movies. pretty good though. it’s 2:20am now. read first “harry potter” book y’day and today during free time; will borrow the second from gilliam and read tomorrow. haven’t read a book for leisure in years. was fun. April 13 i had the best MRE [Meal Ready-to-Eat] i’ve ever had just now — it was a beef enchilada and had 2 chocolate chip cookies for dessert. gotta look for that every time. aerovac’d more y’day morning than has ever been done in one day since the vietnam war. glad the deaths are low, even if the injured #s seem high (we’ve aerovac’d over 1000 patients in the last month alone). found out a few hours ago it was palm sunday. maybe i can go to the chapel tent next week for easter (if i can 1. remember what day it is before it’s too late and 2. stay awake). oh yeah, someone found an 8-foot cobra by the shower tent. hope he was lost. April 19 a couple of days ago, i awoke too late to watch a movie (plus i’d run out of the ones i wanted to see), so i decided to go for a run around the camp. grabbed headphones, sunglasses, and camelback and then stepped outside the tent and into a sandstorm. figured i’d already made the decision to go running so went anyway. head got sunburned. rest of me got sandy. i figure it somehow built character. last night we had a c-130 come in unannounced (it left its engines on, so i got to unload while engulfed in prop wash again). it had 2 ambulatory patients, one expectant (as in “expected to die”), and one already dead. first time i’ve seen a dead person in person. it was worse than ray brower looked to gordon, vern, teddy, and chris in “stand by me,” too. the “expectant” patient had fountains of blood flowing from his eye sockets. gruesome. the crew had debated on whether to send him straight to the morgue or not, but i’m glad they didn’t, b/c when i got to work tonight, we were planning an aerovac flight for him to leave for more care. somehow he’d lived through the night. it’s very rare for an “expectant” to become an “urgent” patient. normally they’re categorized as “deceased” very quickly. the injuries were caused b/c a young army guy tried to take a humvee over a berm and flipped it. driver was one of the ambulatories — he’s fine. i expect he’ll be going to a JAG [Judge Advocate General] officer shortly. in other news, the chow hall has bright colors and eggs everywhere for easter. bittersweet to see regalia indicating we’re about to spend a holiday out here. finished second “harry potter” book and saw “caddyshack” on dvd recently. April 20 easter was good. got up, ran, worked out, watched film “pi” which was good, went to the chapel. odd to go to church in a tent w/ a congregation whose members toted m-16s and gas masks, but the message was good. went to work and saw my name on the list of package recipients for the first time — i had four. two were from Drew, Eckl & Farnham LLP. i appreciate the treats and hygiene items. so do the folks i work and room with! April 24 it’s 3:50am, so i’d have 10 minutes to finish my bankruptcy exam if i were home right now. got 2 more packages from DEF, one from Troutman Sanders LLP. last night i witnessed the most offensive injustice i’ve ever seen in person. i was in a port-o-john and heard the voices of two females w/british accents outside. i walked out, looked to the left, and froze — there, just a few feet away, were two girls wearing togas (barely) and drinking beer. one was exiting the port-o-john next to mine while the other waited. tears gathered in my eyes. my chest burned. i tried to speak but couldn’t. they walked towards the brits’ medical tents. i could see white smoke coming off a grill and several others gathered inside the tents dressed similarly. some had togas; some were dressed in drag; two wore little maid’s outfits; others wore animal costumes. i walked back into our work tent full of uniforms, water bottles, and MREs. i immediately renounced my citizenship and joined the british medical corps. April 30 have now received 16 packages. have shared many of the items w/ the patients in the 47th CSH or sent them to troops in iraq when our aircrews go there. enjoyed the student notes (and one from GA’s governor) included in the box from GSU today. i took some pictures of the iraqi kids we took care of a few days ago; they seemed very grateful. hope they’re ok now (we took them back to iraq after they were treated). without using words, i was able to convince one little boy that he could safely pet one of the cocker spaniels that the brits use to patrol the flight line. both dog and child seemed happy. Coming Friday, Part Tw President Bush declares victory in Iraq, but the war goes on.
This is the first of a three-part series about Michael R. Moebes, a Georgia State University law student whose Air National Guard unit was sent to the war in Iraq two months before he was scheduled to graduate. Moebes shared the story of his mobilization and his e-mail diary from the Persian Gulf with Staff Reporter Jonathan Ringel, who edited and assembled this package. Ringel’s e-mail address is [email protected] .

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