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Mike Green in Iraq
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mike Green
Mike Green, center, spent 17 months in Iraq, where he immersed himself in the culture, before heading to much colder climes in Antarctica.

Road less traveled paved with sand and snow

Mike Green compares the disparities between his overseas assignments in Iraq and Antarctica

My travels in the last couple of years have taken me from the sand and heat of Mesopotamia to the ice and cold of Antarctica.

No mortars here – just dive-bombing skuas. Helicopters on the Ice carry scientists rather than wounded soldiers. I’ve traded armored Humvees for PistenBullys and a Kevlar vest for a big red parka. Instead of a direct line to Houston, we have a direct line to Denver.

All of these are extremes in my last two years of employment history. War zone to the “harsh continent”; soldiers to scientists. The reason for going to Iraq was the money and being part of history. On the Ice, it was the excitement and experience of supporting science while working on the seventh continent.

Last year at this time (and the year before that), I was working in Iraq as a Department of Defense contractor. It was an exciting time to be in Iraq.

I first worked as a heavy equipment operator and as an Iraqi crane crew foreman.

It was a great job with daily interaction with 60 Shiite Iraqi men. I learned all their names, how to count in Arabic and basic conversation. As we worked together to build up the Coalition Forces base, I knew almost all the workers’ life stories and scars of torture – both mental and physical. A surprising number of men had the same basic story to tell of oppression under Saddam.  

My crane crew helped fortify the election polling stations. Each man on the crew was very excited to work to ensure the safety of the population. We were setting concrete walls engineered to withstand a blast. 

I will always remember the day after the election. Inside the camp, all the Americans and coalition forces (9,000 people) gave the Iraqis a 10-minute ovation, followed by joyous hugs, dancing, tears and posing for pictures with our Iraqi friends, who proudly displayed their dyed digits of hope. (In Iraq, you dip your index finger in ink after you vote.)

It was historic, and the first thing, in my opinion, the world press corps got right. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. 

But there were many tough moments, too.

In Iraq, you work 12 hours a day, seven days a week (that’s 84 hours without overtime), four months straight without a day off! You get 10 days off with pay (not including danger pay) and 21 days away from the project. Only three out of 10 employees have an education past high school. You are fed three meals (no vegetarian) a day and typically live a pretty comfortable lifestyle.

Eventually, you get your own “hooch,” a 20-foot by 10-foot living container with a private bathroom. (Before that, you’re living in a tent.)

When I first arrived in Iraq, someone told me something that at first I didn’t understand. He said, “Most people working here come for the security.”

Thirteen months later, I understood. I was living a “Groundhog Day” existence. Eat, work, sleep and repeat. You become institutionalized after a while to the safety bubble “inside the wire” from the real world that you left behind – paying bills, relationships and exciting life experiences, both positive and negative.

Your only real excitement comes from a mortar attack, payday or by mail. Eventually, you begin to lose part of yourself. The trick is to get out before you don’t recognize yourself or your family doesn’t. Your existence is based on the security of money, not on the existence of life’s insecurities. Aren’t those insecurities and how you deal with them what life is all about?

On the other hand, in Antarctica, we work 54 hours in the name of science support, enjoy labeled and vegetarian meals, and work with highly motivated, educated and interesting co-workers. There are plenty of recreational opportunities. We are treated not as the lowest common denominator of mental ability but as motivated seasonal workers.

McMurdo is a nest of safety for the many different colored birds of personality who are afflicted with wanderlust; we flock together in relative social comfort. Most of us are motivated by the excitement (either real or imaginary in the end) of working on a “harsh continent,” coupled by the comfort of understanding, support and encouragement we gain from each other. 

It’s a lifestyle that most people “in the real world” don’t understand or condone. Show them a picture or two and they become detached, uncomfortable, or they want to change the subject. 

Thoreau once said, “The mass of men lead lives in quiet desperation.” We, on the other hand, rage headstrong into the possibilities that life affords. McMurdo “is as stable as my life gets,” uttered an outdoor worker whose candy apple smile of exuberance comes from living life to the fullest. I think many here would agree.

Joy to all who rage into the living of life.

Mike Green works at McMurdo Station as an ATO lead cargo handler. 

 

 

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs