Transcript

302:

Strangers in a Strange Land
Transcript

Originally aired 11.18.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/302

Prologue.

Ira Glass

The strangest thing about Eli's trip into America is not that he was smuggled part way from Guatemala in a tanker truck-- one of those huge trucks that usually carries fuel-- sealed in with 100 people, no windows or light, people fainting as the air got stale. And the strangest thing about Eli's trip into America was not that after they crossed the border at the Rio Grande, they were lost in the desert for 36 hours, and he had to drink his own urine to survive.

Eli Ramirez

Yeah, it tasted a little salty. That's it. Yeah. You don't taste it. You just drink it. You just swallow it. It left a little aftertaste, but it kept me alive.

Ira Glass

No, the strangest thing about Eli's trip into America is that the day he gets to Chicago, after a month on the road, nearly dying twice, 24 hours after he gets to his final destination, he goes to work washing dishes where a friend of his works at Charlie Trotters, one of the most expensive and exclusive restaurants in the country, where you pay over $100 a person, and they bring you whatever the menu happens to be that day.

Eli Ramirez

Well, I felt like a stranger in a strange world, totally different of what I was used to. Like let's say dish machine. What the hell did I know about dish machine? The kitchen well-equipped with compartments and coolers, and then walking into the dining room and the tablecloths white and neat.

That's the place where I seen the biggest wine glasses, a wine glass that could fit a bottle of wine. I remember breaking one of these big glasses. When I was told that they were over $100 each, I just went like, wow.

Ira Glass

Then there's the wine themselves. Lots of people would spend $1,000 for a meal. Coming from the countryside in Guatemala, where he only needed $200 a month to maintain his home and feed his family, it was hard to comprehend.

Eli Ramirez

There was these wild nights, I threw away a lot of food and I thought of how many people in my country could use it. You know, how much food and money was wasted. It was amazing. It's still amazing.

But I think that's just the way people live in this country and that might be what keeps them so blind about the rest of the world. How starving are people, you know, in parts of the planet. I'm not saying they're bad. It's just the way they live here.

Ira Glass

If you go someplace new, you're a stranger in a strange land, you try to make sense of everything around you. And you come to conclusions that are probably different than the things that people who live there think every day. Well, today on our radio program, we have stories of people in that very situation. You're listening to This American Life from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One of our show today, a man tries to reinvent tourism-- yes, tourism-- but he runs into a few snags once he gets to Africa. Act Two, Johnny, Get Your Mouse. You've probably heard about these American soldiers who are blogging from the war in Iraq, but chances are you've never actually taken the time to read many of these blogs. Well, we have done that work for you and have chosen some excerpts. Stories of strangers in a strange land filled with guns and land mines and IEDs. Very different stories from what you get on the news. Stay with us.

Act One. Not Just Tourists, Tourists Who Care.

Ira Glass

Act One, Not Just Tourists, Tourists Who Care. A guy named Chris Tenove came into our studio to talk about his idea to change the face of tourism and to tell the story of his international-- I don't even know the word for this-- the international beta test, I guess, that he did of his idea.

But before we get into any of that, you should understand a little bit about the kind of person that Chris Tenove is, and the kinds of big ideas that kick around in his head.

Chris Tenove

I guess from time to time I've tried to come up with these sort of abstract plans on how to save the world. And I've done this a few times.

There was at one point I had this idea-- I mean, this is a bit of a tangent. I had this idea that gay men in America who can't legally marry each other could go to Burma and marry women there, grant them citizenship, and through that overthrow the Burmese government. And that's a horrible idea for a lot of different reasons--

Ira Glass

Right.

Chris Tenove

--I think. Actually, I was smart enough to more or less-- I've more or less kept it to myself.

Ira Glass

His idea to remake international tourism is another matter. Chris came up with the idea after a dinner with some family friends who had just gotten back from New Zealand.

These are people who, looked at in a certain way, could be seen as kind of obnoxious. These are the kind of people who want that authentic experience wherever they travel. In New Zealand they went to where farmers shear sheep. When they visited Thailand, they visited hill tribe villages in Thailand.

But Chris thought, you know, these people are interested in the world, and if somebody could just harness that energy, they could actually do a lot of good.

Chris Tenove

I guess I really fundamentally believe that there's a lot of good-hearted people with a fair amount of disposable income, who would be willing to really engage financially and emotionally with communities that are impoverished. And I thought, how do you get people to engage? And I thought travel. And maybe we can get them there, get them engaged, and do something useful, do something philanthropic.

Ira Glass

So you had this idea that people could go over to other countries and give away money? Is that the idea? What would they do once they were there?

Chris Tenove

Well, all right. Let's say a small group of people would go to a country like Niger, and they would be taken to a village. And they would spend, let's say, a week there getting to know people, seeing what life is like, and developing a relationship or bond with the people there.

And then when it's time to go, they would leave a sizable enough amount of money to do some good there. I mean, I bet like $500 would pay for building a school, or it would pay for anti-malarial medications for a year for the village. And then they'd go home, and they'd have this continuing bond with the people there.

Ira Glass

Now in fact, there already exists something like this, a small movement that goes under various names-- travelers' philanthropy, volunteer tourism, altruistic travel-- where you go to the places, and maybe you don't get to know the people there quite as well as Chris envisions. Maybe you're not in places quite so desperately off the beaten path, but you visit, you see poverty, and after which you donate some money.

Chris didn't know about any of that, though, and he didn't know anybody had ever tried to figure out what was right or wrong about his idea. And so he started talking to experts, aid workers, about this thing that he decided to call philanthropy tourism. None of them had ever heard about the idea either.

Now Chris is a freelance reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He travels quite a bit to southeast Asia, Cambodia, Thailand. And as fate had it, Chris actually was headed out to one of the poorest countries in the world, Sierra Leone, for his job.

Chris Tenove

Step one was talking to a few aid workers, and they generally told me it wasn't a great idea. I mean, I was told it was a sickening idea by some. And other people thought it was a pretty good idea. Most people had reservations.

Ira Glass

Yeah, we have a clip of a tape that you made at the time. This is Anthony Lawson, a British aid worker for Action for Children in Conflict. Is that it?

Chris Tenove

Yep.

Ira Glass

And here's what she had to say when you ran your idea by her.

Anthony Lawson

I think those who've done aid work for any length of time would probably be somewhat disturbed by that idea.

Chris Tenove

Why?

Anthony Lawson

Because you'd then be turning the people who are the beneficiaries of the aid work into kind of gawking targets for tourists, which is completely unethical.

Ira Glass

What do you think of that?

Chris Tenove

Hey, it's a really valid criticism. I guess the issue that maybe bothered me the most was this image that it would be wealthy North Americans coming and just tossing out money like bread crumbs to pigeons or something, and that you'd get these kicks helping them, and then you'd go back to life. That image of it is-- I mean, I find it repugnant.

Ira Glass

But this did not deter Chris. Sure, these were valid concerns, he thought. But the impact that this could have on people's lives could be so great, he hoped there just could be some way to do it reasonably, without the gawking, without the exploitation.

And so, like a doctor in a science fiction movie who develops an experimental serum and, worried that it is too dangerous to try out the serum on anybody else, injects it into his own veins first, Chris decided to try out philanthropy tourism himself. He would do himself under the crucible.

Like I said, he was in Sierra Leone anyway. He'd go to a poor village himself, meet the people, and donate some money to see if it could possibly be done without all the pitfalls and problems. It was kind of ad hoc.

Chris Tenove

Planning? You know, I didn't do much planning. I'd planned to plan at some point, but then I found myself in a car going to this isolated village called Tombodu, and we were about to get there, and I just thought, well, let's give it a shot.

Ira Glass

You mean you were going to the village to do interviewing for your reporting?

Chris Tenove

Yeah. Yeah, we were literally like a few hundred meters out of this village, and I was traveling with the chief's nephew, and I said, when we get to the village, I'd like to talk to the elders, because I'd like to pay for someone in the village who needs a medical operation. And he said, what? Are you sure? And I said, yeah. And he said, OK, well, we'll talk to the elders.

Ira Glass

OK, so you go there and what happens when you're brought before the elders of a small village?

Chris Tenove

It wasn't very formal. The chief's nephew knew who to look for, and we stopped by a couple houses and actually just picked the guys up, and we had this little conference in the back of the car. And they said, well, we know the guy. We know the guy. We'll get him for you.

Ira Glass

And what was his medical ailment that he needed an operation on?

Chris Tenove

Well, it had something to do with an infected and torn scrotum that had been bothering him for a long time, for years. And when I later met him, I could see he was having great difficulty walking. And so I just said, well, they know who needs the operation, so this is it.

Ira Glass

Did you have any sense of if he was trying to get the money together for an operation?

Chris Tenove

Yeah, well, he told me that that morning he'd gone with his younger brother on the trip into a nearby town. And he'd gone to the doctors, and they'd said, this is what it is, and they wrote out how much it would cost to pay for an operation, which was the whopping sum of $150. And this was going to take, he figured, about a year long fundraising to get that kind of money together.

And so I came, literally, an hour after he returned to the village. And so he told me later, he said, heaven sent you to me. I know you're an angel.

Ira Glass

$150? It just seems like so little.

Chris Tenove

Yeah. It's a poor country and Tombodu is a poor village in Sierra Leone.

Ira Glass

Now I understand you then made a speech to the village, and we have a recording of that that you made. And can you just tell me, what is the setting? Who was there? Where are you? Are you just standing out in the open?

Chris Tenove

As I'd been walking around the village, there'd been more and more people gathering around. So there were 10 and then 20, and then, I think, there was about 50 people by then. And we were going to be driving out of town with this fellow, and, in fact, the chief's nephew had said, you know, we can't just toss him in the car and drive off. You've got to say something to explain it.

Ira Glass

OK. Here's a recording of it.

Chris Tenove

Hello, everyone. My name is Chris. I'm from Canada.

Translator

[SPEAKING KRIO]

Chris Tenove

Before I left Canada,

Translator

[SPEAKING KRIO]

Chris Tenove

I talked to some of my relatives, and I told them I was coming to Sierra Leone.

Translator

[SPEAKING KRIO]

Chris Tenove

And I asked them if they could give me a little bit of money to help someone.

Ira Glass

Now I'm just going to stop the tape right there before we go further. Is that true?

Chris Tenove

You mean, that I'd asked relatives to pitch in?

Ira Glass

Yes.

Chris Tenove

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Really? Strictly speaking true?

Chris Tenove

It was probably-- what I was spending was, I don't know, half mine and half of family members. But you know what? I was really glad to be able to say that.

I mean, it feels weird to say, hey, look, I'm giving this money for these people. I liked to be able to say this isn't me doing something. It's family members. I'm just sort of an instrument.

Ira Glass

Let me play a little more tape.

Chris Tenove

So this is why I'm taking this man from your village to the doctor.

Translator

[SPEAKING KRIO]

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

And so then they break into applause, and you feel--

Chris Tenove

Yeah, that was my Angelina Jolie moment. On the one hand, it was a little bit giddy. It's nice to have all these people cheering for something you've decided to do. But on the other hand, I really did feel like a big fraud. I mean, the 50 people like, literally, started cheering, and I thought, this is $150 that I'm spending, but it seems like there's way too much veneration, way too much excitement, I mean.

Ira Glass

Was there a part of you which wanted to say to them, no, no, no. You don't understand. This really isn't very much for me.

Chris Tenove

Yeah. Yeah, right. Like, don't get so excited. Yeah, that would have been a weird thing to say.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Chris Tenove

But also I was told-- another thing that aid workers and also the chief's nephew brought up is that there's a real problem that people come to expect every foreigner is going to give a lot of money. The aid workers had coached me, don't encourage this culture of dependency. Make sure to say that not every foreigner is going to come along with money and do something like this.

I just want to say something very clear.

Translator

[SPEAKING KRIO]

Chris Tenove

Please don't expect every white person who comes to do this.

Translator

[SPEAKING KRIO]

Chris Tenove

And there are a lot of NGOs now and organizations in Sierra Leone.

Translator

[SPEAKING KRIO]

Chris Tenove

And one day most of them, they're going to slowly leave.

Yeah, what the hell am I talking about there? I mean, it's true the UN is hugely invested in Sierra Leone right now after the end of the civil war and they are going to start pulling out. But, I don't know, it just seems sort of arrogant to say-- to be kind of wagging my finger and saying, you guys have got to establish your own health care system. You know, you can't expect foreigners to do it.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Chris Tenove

After that speech and when we got into the car and started bouncing our way back to the nearby town, I finally got the chance to start talking to this man and that was when things really started to feel right.

And actually, we ended up sitting together for a couple hours and just chatting. And he told me about his life, really, and about his grandchildren and about the day he found a diamond in the pits nearby and was able to build this nice house that later got burned down by the rebels.

You know, talking about his grandchildren and how he wasn't going to be a boring old man anymore. He said once he had this operation, he'd be able to garden again and walk around. And so, it was quite touching. It was nice to have gotten to know him over that afternoon and early evening.

Ira Glass

And so his first field test turned out exactly how Chris had hoped it would. And as he traveled, he even met some people in Sierra Leone who saw his vision, who got really excited about the idea of philanthropy tourism.

Chris Tenove

And there was one woman who already was trying to think of how to get people to visit this little hippo preserve, this baby-- no, what was it? Miniature hippo preserve in Sierra Leone. And she was working out how much it would cost.

Ira Glass

What are you talking about? I feel like she's sitting on gold. She has miniature baby hippos?

Chris Tenove

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And she can't get Westerners to come and give money? Like, that's the easiest sell I've ever heard. She basically is sitting on like wild, African, baby, miniature, baby African hippo puppies, right? Like, that's what we're talking about here.

Chris Tenove

Yeah. Well, the problem is it's in Sierra Leone, the land of the child soldiers and amputation squads. So it's not-- Sierra Leone is not an easy tourism sell.

Ira Glass

It's actually such a tough tourism sell, Chris thought, that it would be prudent to do a second trial of his experiment. After all, it's not really science if you can't replicate your results. He heard about a nonprofit organization called Gracelands that had a good reputation for helping people. He thought maybe he'd try there.

Chris Tenove

It's an organization for traumatized young women. Most of them were bush brides, which meant during the civil war, rebel groups would've captured them in their village and taken them off. And a lot of them would have been gang raped and forced to serve this rebel group in these sort of marriages.

I'd also found out that there was a young woman there who needed an operation. And so, I was going to give them money for this operation to the organization, but I thought, you know, I'd spend an afternoon there.

Ira Glass

You just wanted to get to know them a little bit.

Chris Tenove

Yeah. And I didn't even plan on getting to know this one woman whose operation I was paying for in particular. I thought, we'll just hangout and we'll have this same sort of thing that I had with the gentleman in the other village.

But it didn't quite happen that way. When I got there, you know, we started talking, and then the young women there would start to tell me exactly what had happened to them.

Ira Glass

You mean, because you asked or just because you were this foreigner who was in there and it seemed like the thing to do?

Chris Tenove

Well, I mean, I would ask a question like, where are you from or something like that. And they would describe being captured by the rebels and they'd talk about the difficult straits they were in now. And I kind of got the feeling that these young women thought, here's someone who can provide help, and so we've got to show to him we really need it.

And so, even though it was sort of uncomfortable, they would start to describe these painful incidents. And, in fact, I don't even really know how this happened-- I mean, why the conversations took that turn, but it happened again and again. I just felt horrible.

Ira Glass

Now we have a recording of you with some of these women, and I have to say, it seems so painful. I'm not sure I even want to put it on the radio, just because it feels-- like your heart goes out to these women who just start crying when they start talking to you about this.

And I wonder, at the end of that experience did you feel like, OK, well, that's it. I guess this isn't such a great idea. Like, how did you feel at the end of that?

Chris Tenove

Yeah. I felt exploitative, you know, that I was coming there to-- OK, I was going to give some money, but I was also going to enjoy their company and maybe even feel good about what I was doing. And then instead of it being pleasurable for everyone it turned into what was really these heart wringing catalysts for grief while I was there.

And so, I kind of think that that one was a mistake. But, ultimately, even though the second time didn't work out that well, I still think it was a good idea for me, because it just really convinced me that you can engage and with these small amounts of money, you can really do something useful. I think it's absurd how easy it is and that it's not being done.

Ira Glass

But you say it's so easy, but when you talked to that woman, it seemed like it was incredibly painful for her.

Chris Tenove

Yeah. I guess what I think was the easy part in that situation, it was very easy to give. It was like $120 for this operation, which is not that much money and you can change someone's life. That's the easy part. The really difficult part is these relationships.

Ira Glass

I wonder if the thing that makes it so tough is the fact that you're trying to get something back from it. Do you know what I mean? Like, when you talk about it, you say, you thought you'd enjoy their company. You thought that you'd have an experience that would make you feel good about what you're doing, and I wonder if the nature of this kind of act is that you have to do it not expecting anything back.

Chris Tenove

Yeah. I think that's true. I mean, and why do we have to have a good time when doing this? I just think it's because people need an inducement in order to do the right thing sometimes.

Ira Glass

I know, but it's almost like you're trying to take people who don't want to be generous and say, well, there's something in it for you. And I feel like, in the end, maybe charity is really just going to be for the generous.

Chris Tenove

I think people will be more generous once they go and meet people and see what the situation is like. And so it's setting up that engagement. And this idea of philanthropy tourism, it's not for people who are already giving a lot of money to organizations. And I really believe that once people have actually seen what it's like, they will be generous.

Ira Glass

Chris Tenove. He still believes that somebody could get philanthropy tourism to work, somebody with organizational skills. He says that he'll still give to charity, but never again one-on-one in a village.

Coming up, some of the unpleasant dangers of being an American serviceman in Iraq-- IEDs, ambushes, subscriptions to Details magazine. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Strangers in a Strange Land.

Act Two. Johnny Get Your Mouse.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at act two of our show. Act Two, Johnny, Get Your Mouse.

Soldiers in Iraq are writing open diaries about their experience in that strange place on daily blogs that anybody can read on the internet. We now have excerpts of three of them. Many of the blogs that are out there very consciously try to counteract what soldiers consider the bias of the mainstream media.

These blogs tell stories of successes, schools built, kids who get health care. All of that is very common, but the blogs are much more than that. One of our producers, Amy O'Leary, has been reading dozens and dozens of the blogs trying to get a sense of what they're about and get an overview. Amy.

Amy O'leary

Well, I would say about 20% of them are writing with, you know, an emphatic sort of political sensibility. By and large almost all of those are patriotic and conservative, and they are talking about the war and talking about their support for it.

There's another 20% that are not really writing for anyone except friends or family. It's much more private.

Ira Glass

So this is like in lieu of emailing a whole bunch of people. They just put it up there and the people who know them just look.

Amy O'leary

Right. And then the last group is the majority. And those blogs are really people who are trying to write about the war to explain it to people back in the States.

Ira Glass

What are they writing about?

Amy O'leary

How they pass the time. How they're doing. You know, a lot of it's counting down the days to come home. How the food is. You know, practical jokes they've played on the guys they're with. Pretty basic stuff. So, you know, if they go on missions, they talk about that.

A lot about Iraqi kids. Almost everybody talks about the kids they see in the street. There's so many pictures of soldiers helping kids, soldiers handing out candy and pens and pencils. They all seem to have a really strong affection and fondness for the kids in Iraq.

Ira Glass

And so what's the picture that you get of the war after you read a lot of these that you might not have otherwise?

Amy O'leary

There are so many people writing. There are so many blogs. There are so many people's lives who are encompassed by this war. And, you know, you might hear about an IED explosion. You might hear about, you know, a truck bomb or something, but then when you read about it over and over again, and you read-- like, almost anybody who's left the base has been hit by an IED. This is not, you know, a couple of isolated incidents. This is a fact of life for the people who are over there.

Ira Glass

OK. So now we're going to hear excerpts from a handful of different bloggers. And this first one is Captain Chuck Ziegenfuss. I should say that we have links to all of the URLs at our website, thisamericanlife.org. The URL for his blog is tcoverride.blogspot.com.

And he, on his blog, describes himself as an unashamedly patriotic American, 15 years in the army, the commander of Charlie Company 2 3 4 Armor in Iraq and at Fort Riley, Kansas. He had about 65 to 70 guys under him and 14 tanks. Here he is.

Captain Chuck Ziegenfuss

I had an interesting day. I went on another patrol, but this one got pretty interesting right off the bat. We were walking through a palm grove just looking around, and I looked about three feet to my right and saw a landmine.

I immediately looked at my feet, not making the connection that if I had already stepped on a mine, I'd not have any feet. Well, we cordoned off the area and swept for more mines as some of the boys prepped it for demolition.

About 30 minutes later, I was 50 yards away talking to one of my platoon sergeants, and I find another mine. This one is about 15 feet away under a piece of cinder block. Again, I look at my feet before saying, hey, isn't that a mine?

We blew them both up and went about our business. The weird thing about all this was how normal it all seemed. I didn't get excited, just went about doing my job. I guess it will all end up as part of my PTSD later.

I was talking to one of the villagers today, as I was watched by her seven kids. As I looked at the youngest of them, a little girl about my daughter's age, I saw a dirty face and a big toothy grin. She hid by Grandma Sabiya and just kept staring and smiling.

She was wearing sandals and a t-shirt and a seventh generation hand-me-down pair of pants. Here I was standing around wearing my desert uniform, wool socks, coat, body armor, and all my gear, and I was a little chilly. But these kids are dressed like we dress in the summer. It's not a matter of acclimation. They simply have no other choice.

I just wanted to give that little girl a pair of shoes and a warm smile, and tell her that people in America that have never met her care about her. I came over here thinking we should just bomb this place into a parking lot. I now think that as alien as this culture is, it may actually be worth saving. I figure that if I'm going to have to find mines, get shot at, and get blown up by IEDs, I might try to do some good here, too. God knows I'm way low on karma points.

An hour later, a little kid throws a rock at my truck. It bounces off the gunner's turret, hits him in his sunglasses, shatters the lens, and gives the gunner one helluva shiner. So much for the shoes.

I showed him something else. Love, parental American style. I chased him on foot through the town, pulled his pants down in front of all of his little buddies, and spanked his bare ass right there on the street. If it's good enough for my kids, it's good enough for him.

Pretty dull day today. I had a meeting with the sheik's council in al Hillah, which is like a county, with a local mayor and about 20 sheiks, and maybe three of them I trust. The head sheik, Sheik Adnan, looks like a very tan Lee Marvin. There's another one, Sheik Amir, who looks like Father Guido Sarducci from old SNL reruns. The Iraqi army major I work with, Major Karim looks, I swear, just like Eugene Levy from SCTV.

The sheiks all bitch about the same things. They want public works projects in their towns, and we want them to guarantee security and turn over terrorists to us. They balk and say that they can control their people, but people come from other areas to plant IEDs and attack Americans. We say, bull [BLEEP] and tell them that we can't pay for the public works until the area is secure. Lather, rinse and repeat. Third verse same as the first. I imagine this will go on for a year or so.

Sheik Adnan is pretty likable and seems to be a pretty honest broker. He told me yesterday that sometimes he will have to say things to me in front of the other sheiks that he does not necessarily back. I understand that he has to do it to save face.

I also told him, in no uncertain terms, that I didn't really care what he said to me in front of the other sheiks as long as we remain respectful to each other. I told him that if he disrespects me, I will drag him through the streets in cuffs and put him in a very dark place. It seemed weird to say that to a 50-year-old man, but he smiled and told me that he was glad to see that I had backbone, and that there are very few people who would ever say that to his face and he respects me for it.

He asked me if I was a prince or a sheik in America, because I had so many tanks and soldiers. I didn't want to tell him the truth, because it would actually hurt my position with him. So I told him that America does not have princes or sheiks, but I was personally commissioned by the President of the United States and placed in command of the company under his authority. This, of course, is true, but not exactly forthcoming. He was very impressed by that.

Trueman Muhrer

Did you know that in America they have machines that make clouds come? I didn't either until we found out from an Iraqi man at the gas station. And thank God our body armor has those internal cooling units. If I didn't have that micro air conditioner inside, then I'd just be walking around with a 30-pound vest in 110 degree heat.

Oh, and I don't know where I'd be without my sunglasses. Unfortunately, many Iraqis have figured out that they allow me to see weapons through people's clothing. I don't know where they get this stuff from, but if myths about American technology make someone think twice about attacking us, then I guess I can't complain.

Ira Glass

This is Trueman Muhrer-Irwin. He blogs at livejournal. com under the name rebelcoyote. He's originally from Chicago. He joined the Army National Guard, served as a Private First Class in Alpha Company Third Battalion 124th Infantry.

Trueman Muhrer

We had just finished the DVD of Friends, season three, and me, Micah, and Jared had all sat down to watch season four. We were all having a good time. Ross and Rachel were getting back together after a weekend retreat to the beach. Phoebe discovered who her real mother was. Joey dug a hole. Chandler made snide remarks. And in Baghdad, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle packed with explosives up to the Turkish Embassy and detonated it, killing himself and injuring at least two embassy workers.

The blast, no more than a mile away from our compound, shook the walls. The doors rattled. The windows of our supply room cracked. The explosion was louder than the RPG that struck our compound two months earlier.

It still doesn't seem real, none of this. Even the biggest explosions seem like special effects in a long, drawn out training exercise. It was still hard to believe that this is real, that people are dying. And that the events that make CNN headlines, the kind of stuff that's passed in my peripheral awareness my entire life is happening a mile away from where I sleep.

Ira Glass

After this entry on Trueman's blog, there are a couple more entries, and then on November 9, 2003, the entries stop. Five days later, this message appears on the blog from his friend, Emily. "Hi, all. This is Emy, updating on behalf of rebelcoyote. To start with, Trueman is going to be OK, however, he won't be updating for a while." She goes on to say that Trueman's been injured. He's in hospital in Germany. He'll write again when he can.

Then, just over a week later at midnight, November 17, Trueman comes back to tell what happened.

Trueman Muhrer

We were on our way to pick up a few things from our compound. If we were going to spend the rest of the week at First AD Brigade headquarters, we were sure as hell going to have all our stuff. We were just going to make a quick stop at the barracks, then head over to gunner main.

As we were coming up towards River Road, I stared out at the street, pulling security from behind the 50 cal. Then all of a sudden something hit me. It felt like we'd driven under a low bridge or maybe someone had hit me with a brick. It took almost a full second to realize what had happened.

The smoke and the dust were all around us. There was no sound but the dull ringing in my head, and all I could smell was blood. I began to feel frantically around my throat for wounds as the voice of platoon medic Matt Moss pierced the silence. Get away from the vehicle, he screamed. He was right. The gas tanks could go or someone could be waiting with an RPG for the dust to clear.

When I lowered myself to the ground, I looked through the missing windshield and saw Wise, still motionless in the passenger seat. His head was tilted back and his face was covered in blood.

Help me move him, Matt shouted. I can't, I yelled. I think my foot's broken. As I hopped off to the side of the road and sat down, I realized that my foot was not only broken, but pouring a steady stream of blood from the left side.

Through gritted teeth and intense pain, I unlaced my boot and pulled it off. The left side of my sock was entirely soaked and dripping with blood, but the right side was a large charred patch of indistinguishable skin, sock, and shrapnel.

I'm going to lose my foot, I thought. Then Matt's voice broke through my self-absorbed agony. Come on, Wise, breathe, he shouted. God damn it, breathe. You're not going to die here.

I shouldn't be worried about my foot while one of my best friends is dying 10 feet away, but it hurt so bad. Wise and I were loaded onto a Blackhawk and evaced to the hospital at the palace. They'd gotten him breathing again. They said he'd be OK.

At the hospital, they gave me morphine. It didn't do much for the pain, but Wise was going to be OK, and once the doctor pulled the shrapnel out, he said I wasn't going to lose my foot. All in all, I was in a good mood. Maybe it was just the drugs, but I knew everything was going to be fine.

The doctors put me under for surgery. They cleaned out my wound and cut away the dead burned tissue. When I woke up, I didn't feel any pain. I still had my foot. I was going to be back in the States in a week.

Then I found out that Wise, the guy I had spent the last nine months getting to know better than any one else, died of massive head trauma while I was in surgery. He'll be buried at Arlington National Cemetery next week.

This is all a dream. Any second now, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] going to wake me up for a guard shift. Any second now, I'm going to climb grudgingly out of my bed and look across through the dim light and see Wise. He'll be making that face again, the one that's questioning how many people he'd have to kill to go back to sleep.

We'll get dressed, drag our feet up to the roof, and spend a miserable three hours in the freezing wind staring down at the road. Maybe he'll tell me about his job at Greybar or an anecdote from his days as JROTC Corps Commander. I might tell him about Chicago and why things didn't work out with my last girlfriend.

We'll nod and pretend we haven't heard the stories before. We'll bitch about our leaders and talk about our plans when we get home. Maybe Wise will even pull out a three-by-five card and draw up the floor plan for his house again.

Any second now we'll wake up, and Wise won't be dead. Because he can't be dead. People only die in the newspapers. But the seconds pass, and I don't wake up to anything but sterile sheets and pain.

I never thought I'd join the army. I've had a fairly liberal pacifist upbringing and couldn't imagine myself as a soldier. I feel funny admitting it now, but ultimately, it was the college money that got me. It seemed like a good deal. I knew that even if I got sent overseas, the worst case scenario was a rotation in Bosnia. I wouldn't be gone more than six months.

I hated the way this war started. It took me a long time to come to terms with my role as a soldier in Iraq. Eventually, I came to realize that, although the method was flawed, the result was freedom for the people for the first time in 30 years.

People don't hear the good things from the news, and I'll admit that even I have trouble taking the things that come from the White House Press Room seriously. But no one hears about the people who bring us food in the streets and take their children out to shake our hands.

We established the first garbage collection system in Baghdad's history. We've arrested dozens of corrupt gas station managers to keep gas prices stable. And I can't think of the last time I heard someone mention the sanctions, which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and are now over.

We have no choice but to finish the job we started. Anything less would be disastrous for the Iraqi people. Anything less would mean that every person who died here did it for nothing. And Wise didn't die for nothing.

I'm back in the US now. I have a long and difficult road ahead of me. Even once my foot is healed, it will take months of physical therapy before I can walk again. But the important thing is I will walk again.

I get asked about my foot a lot. People ask me what happened or how I hurt it, in elevators, in the airport, asking about an apparently simple injury. A foot in a thick ace bandage wrap seems to be acceptable small talk, like, nice weather today, huh?

It's not that I mind, it's just that it's awkward, because when I tell them what happened, they never know what to say. It sounds so weird. It was a roadside bomb in Baghdad. Sometimes I say it and it doesn't even sound true. I feel like I'm making it up.

Then there's the people who ask things like, how did you break it, or did you fall down the stairs, or the lady who said, oh, I had arch problems once. Not like this, lady. I guarantee you.

When I tell people what happened, some people are really nice. They shake my hand and thank me. Others just say things like, wow, that sucks, or, oh, I'm sorry, and look slightly embarrassed. I feel weird saying it, and they feel weird hearing it. I've honestly considered telling people I sprained my ankle. I think it may only be a matter of time before I do.

Ira Glass

The third blogger is Colby Buzzell, who had a really popular blog, thousands of readers, called My War: Killing Time in Iraq. Since he got back to the States, he's taken lots of these entries, added some new stuff, and published it as a book under the same name. He was a machine gunner in the Third Arrowhead Brigade Second Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, serving in Mosul.

Colby Buzzell

20 October, '03. Another brief at Carey Theater. The second half was about rules of engagement. A female captain came out and asked us a hypothetical, what-if question. If your convoy was going under an overpass and there was women and children on the overpass throwing rocks down at us, what should you do? Do you shoot or not shoot?

The first answer that came to my head was, no. You don't engage. You don't fire unless you see a weapon, so, no, I would not fire. I wonder why she said, women and children, like why not say, people, instead, or was women and children for effect?

One soldier in the auditorium instantly yelled out, light 'em up, which was followed by some laughter. But there was also people in the auditorium that disagreed with the light 'em up answer. As soldiers were debating with each other on what should be done in a situation like that, the battalion commander stepped up, and I could tell that he wasn't really digging on what this captain was trying to do here.

And he asked us all a non-hypothetical question. How many of you been in combat? Several people raised their hands. The captain, I noticed, did not.

How many of you have been shot at? Almost all the raised hands stayed raised. Then you understand that it doesn't matter if it's a woman or a child. If they have a weapon, they have a weapon. If you feel threatened, you feel threatened.

He then told us all not to worry about doing the right thing, that if we wanted to do the right thing to go out and rent a Spike Lee movie. He then stressed to us that if we felt threatened, pull the trigger. It's better to be safe than sorry. Better him dead than you.

We were engaged in a huge fire fight at the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] police station and the mosque next door to it. It took hours. Then at the end, the ING, Iraqi National Guard, showed up.

Our platoon leader chose a couple soldiers from our platoon to talk to the media, who wanted to find out what went down today in Mosul. A high ranking army public affairs officer, a lieutenant colonel, briefed them on what they could and could not say.

All three told me that he stressed to them to tell the media that the insurgents fired first, and we were there just to return fire, which is true. But he also told them, do not say that TOW missiles were used in the attack, but to instead say, internal weapon systems were used.

Whatever. That's no big deal. That's like saying instead of telling the media that you returned fire with your M-4, tell them that you returned fire with your self defense mechanism.

But then he told them to flat out lie when he said, do not mention the fact that the Iraqi police fled from the mosque and the police station, how they didn't even put up a fight, but instead, tell the media that they fought well and did an excellent job.

To make sure I'd never run out of reading material, I subscribed to as many magazines as possible before I left the States. I went to the mag rack at the PX and grabbed as many of those annoying subscription slips as I could.

I find that infantry men are into macho testosterone literature when it comes to monthly periodicals, mags like 4X4 Monthly, Guns & Ammo, Outdoor World, Soldier of Fortune, which I subscribe to just for the articles, and, of course, the soft core bubble gum skin mags, like Maxim, FHM, and Stuff.

Pornography in magazines, like Playboy and Penthouse, are, of course, not allowed in Iraq for reasons that have to do with not offending anyone and being sensitive to the Islamic culture or some [BLEEP] like that. So I subscribed to magazines that I liked, but knew not a lot of other soldiers read, like Thrasher, MAD, National Geographic, TIME, and Details. To this day, I seriously have no idea why the [BLEEP] I subscribed to Details, which I caught a lot of hell for and brought up a bunch of questions about my sexuality among fellow squad members.

Every mail call, I would dread whenever the new issue would arrive, because my squad leader would read off the name of whoever the letter or package was addressed to. Then he'd flip it over and show the rest of the squad the cover, which would always be some sexy cover shot of like Vin Diesel or Justin Timberlake. Then he'd throw the mag at me and say something like, don't ask, don't tell.

Of course, every one in my squad would get a laugh out of this and say things like, dude, you're a homo. And I, of course, would feel the need to explain myself. Look, dude, Details is not a mag for gay people. Check it out. There's tons of hot chicks in it.

And I would open it up and flip through the pages and try to prove to the guys in my squad that Details was a totally hetero mag, which kind of backfired on me, because when I did this, every single page that I opened to was a full page photo of some girly man doing his best Zoolander.

Thursday, August 4, 2004. Men in black. I was in my room reading a book, Thin Red Line, when the mortar started coming down. Usually when we get mortared, it's usually one or maybe two mortars. But this mortar attack went on for like 20 minutes. Sergeant Horrach ripped open the door and yelled, grab your guys and go down to the motor pool. The whole battalion is rolling out. Holy [BLEEP]. The whole battalion? This must be big.

One by one, the strikers were rolling out of the motor pool ready to hunt down whoever was [BLEEP] with us. Soldiers in the hatches of the vehicles were hooting and hollering and doing the Indian yell thing as they drove off and locked and loaded their weapons.

As I turned on all our computers and radios inside our vehicle to get ready to roll out, I heard on the radio that the [BLEEP] was hitting the fan all over Mosul. Large amounts of AIF, anti-Iraqi forces, were attacking us with small arms, IEDs, and RPG fire. And there was a bunch of people wearing all black armed with AK-47s all over Mosul.

I was sticking out of my hatch behind the 50 cal. I glanced over to the left side of the vehicle at which time I observed a man, dressed in all black with a terrorist beard, jump out all of a sudden from the side of a building. He pointed his AK barrel right at my [BLEEP] pupils.

I saw the fire from his muzzle flash leaving the end of his AK as he was shooting directly at me. I heard and felt the bullets whiz literally inches from my head, hitting all around my hatch and 50 cal mount, making a ping, ping, ping sound.

We were driving down route Tampa. All hell suddenly came down around us. Out of nowhere, all these guys wearing all black, a couple dozen on each side of the street and rooftops, alleys, edge of buildings, out of windows, everywhere, just came out out of nowhere and started unloading on us. IEDs were being ignited on both sides of the street. I freaked the [BLEEP] and ducked down in the hatch, and I yelled over the radio, holy [BLEEP]. We got [BLEEP] Hajis all over the [BLEEP] place. They're all over, god damn it.

Bullets were pinging all over our armor, and you could hear multiple RPGs being fired and soaring through the air in every which way, and impacting all around us. All sorts of crazy, insane Hollywood explosions were going off. I was like, this is it. I'm going to die. I cannot put into words how scared I was.

The vehicle in front of us, Bravo Victor 2 1 was getting hit by multiple RPGs. I kind of lost it and was yelling and screaming all sorts of things, mostly cuss words. With RPGs still flying, our driver floored it, pedal to the metal, and red lined the vehicle right through the ambush as fast as he could.

Finally, we fired our way out of the kill zone and made our way over to bridge five. We parked the vehicle and dismounted. I lit up a smoke and started to scan my sector. The Pepsi bottling plant across the street was all up in flames. Then after a couple minutes we were told to load back up and go back to where we got ambushed.

I'm not going to lie. I didn't want to go back. I didn't want to get killed. I was scared to death, but we had to go back, and we did.

We drove back to the area where we had just dodged death and were taking fire from all over. I fired and fired and fired and fired at everything. We were running low on 50 cal ammunition at this point, and my platoon sergeant, Sergeant Horner, told me to reload. He told me that the ammo was dropped down on the outside of the vehicle over on the right side. Why the [BLEEP] would the ammo for the 50 cal be on the outside of the vehicle?

With my hands I did the sign of the cross on my chest, said a prayer, please, God, I don't want to [BLEEP] die. And as my platoon sergeant laid down some suppressive fire with his M-4, I got up out of the hatch, got my whole body completely out of the vehicle, and walked on the top of our vehicle to find the box of 50 cal ammunition.

I was shaking and scared out of my [BLEEP] mind as I did this, and thinking to myself that having ammo located on the outside of the vehicle has got to be the dumbest, [BLEEP] idea in the world, and whoever thought of that idea should be [BLEEP] shot.

I saw a crowd of people suspiciously peeking around a corner at us. I pointed this out to Sergeant Horner and asked him what I should do. As he was shooting nonstop from his hatch in the heat of the moment, he told me to just [BLEEP] shoot them, and he explained to me that these people have no [BLEEP] business out on the street whatsoever right now.

So I pointed the crosshairs at them, but then I moved it right above their heads and fired a burst, which got them to disperse in a hurry. I could tell that they were just spectators.

Suddenly, about 300 meters away from us, over by the traffic circle, I saw two guys with those red and white jihad towels wrapped around their heads creeping around a corner. They were hunched down hiding behind a stack of tires. I could tell by their body language something was up.

I placed the crosshairs on them and was about to [BLEEP] waste them, but for some reason I didn't pull the trigger. These guys were not dressed in black like the guys earlier, and from what I could see, they didn't have any weapons on them. Something told me that I should just wait one, maybe two, more seconds.

Then I saw another guy creeping around that corner with an RPG in his hand. As soon as I saw that, I yelled, RPG, as loud as I could into the CVC. My crosshairs were bouncing all over, so I gather my composure as fast as I could, put the crosshairs on them, and engaged them with a good 10 round bursts of some 50 cal right at them. Nobody moved from behind those tires after that.

This gun fight has been going on for four and a half hours when the ING's, Iraqi National Guard, finally showed up to the party-- about [BLEEP] time-- in their ING pickup trucks all jam packed with ING soldiers in uniform armed with AK-47s. We had to return to FOB Marez as we were running extremely low on fuel, ammo, and water, so we all mounted up and drove back to the FOB.

I was smoking like a chimney, one right after another. My nerves were completely shot, and I was emotionally drained, and I noticed that my hands were still kind of shaking. I was thinking how lucky I was to be alive.

I've never experienced anything like the fear I felt today. A couple times today I thought about that guy who jumped out from the corner of that building with that angry look on his face when he pointed the AK at my head and pulled the trigger.

The attacks on my platoon up to this point had been just chicken [BLEEP], hit and run bull [BLEEP]. Every time we'd get hit, they'd be nowhere in sight. These guys today were on the offensive. They held their ground and showed no fear of us whatsoever.

Before that ambush, I received a lot of emails from people and I'd just scan over them briefly, but then when I posted the men in black entry, my blog blew up like an IED on route Tampa. I was getting emails from people all over the United States, Europe, Canada, South America, as well as soldiers in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Soldiers I didn't even know at FOB Marez were emailing me. Even the helicopter pilots that flew above us on missions were emailing. That's when I knew my blog was huge, once I started getting emails from the helicopter pilots.

Every now and then I'd get an email that said things like, thank you for serving. I enjoyed your articles until you took off with the bad words. I, for one, am sorry that I won't be able to read about your experiences anymore.

I always ignored and deleted those kinds of emails. [BLEEP] them. If they don't like the swear words, they can go read somebody else's [BLEEP] blog.

About a week or so before this in the back of the Striker during a mounted patrol, Specialst Cummings asked me if I knew anything about a soldier in Mosul who did a blog. Habee and I just kind of looked at each other, and I asked Cummings why.

He told me that his parents emailed him, asking him if he knew anything about it. Habee and I just laughed, so I told Cummings all about it. And he told me all about how his father saves all the entries that I write on a separate file and goes through it all and deletes all the cuss words and swear words out of it, so that way his mom could be able to read it.

Sergeant Horrachs sister also read the blog, and she emailed Horrachs to have him tell me to save the profanities for the movie. Honestly, I didn't even realize that I was swearing as much as I was.

Sometimes I'd get an email that hit close to home and put everything into perspective. Like the email I received from the mother who lost a son here in Mosul several days before he was supposed to return home on R&R.

She thanked me for writing about what was going on. She said, I read many entries and felt blessed, comforted in a way, as you have given me a peek into what my son had experienced in Mosul.

You have thoughts like he would have had, I think. I just want to thank you for sharing in this way. God works through people by stirring their hearts and sometimes people never know how they're helping others. I thank you, pray for your safety, and your safe return home.

I read her email, and I sat there at the computer monitor for a moment. And I didn't know what to say. What do you say to someone who's lost a son here? I don't know if I did the right thing-- probably not-- but I never wrote her back. I didn't know what to write.

Ira Glass

Colby Buzzell. His book based on writing from his blog is called, My War: Killing Time in Iraq. We also heard from Trueman Muhrer-Irwin, who recently was tattooed with his friend, Wise's name. His foot is healed now. And Chuck Ziegenfuss. He's at Walter Reed Medical Hospital for surgeries, trying to recover feeling in his left hand after being injured by an IED. Web addresses at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our website, where you can listen to our shows for absolutely free or do your Christmas shopping. You can buy programs on CD, Best of collections, our comic book and, especially, the DVD of the story I did with cartoonist Chris Ware. That's at www.thisamericanlife.org.

You know you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife.

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WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who came by our office this morning with doughnuts-- yes, doughnuts-- and a warning.

Chris Tenove

Please don't expect every white person who comes to do this.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? [SIGH] God.

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