Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Workin' like a Dawg

Actually, our working dogs seem to love their job. We have bomb-sniffers that check out every vehicle entering the compound. It's playtime for them - they get to go stick their noses under trucks and into wheel wells and all kinds of places that bombs might be hidden. Sometimes they go around twice, just for the fun of it, tails wagging furiously. They might even go around three times, but their handlers get bored easily and call them off.

I watched them doing a bit of training for the dogs the other day. They hid a little packet somewhere on a random truck, and when the dog found it, he got a reward. Ohmigawsh, he was the happiest dog in Baghdad! Another dog, in a different part of the parking lot, heard the commotion and came over to find the packet and get a reward, too. Hey, that sounds like a good line of thinking to me: "Do I continue to look for something that might be here, or do I go running over there where I know there's something good?" Damn straight! The trainer wasn't too pleased, but the dog found the packet.

We've been going hard for the past couple of weeks. As already mentioned, there are a lot of changes going on in many different things, and all at once. "Flexibility" is the word of the day. I remember a commercial from a year or two ago, where some people are out playing tennis, and then the game suddenly changes to something else, and then something else again, and keeps on changing. That's our world. We're moving from the IZ in Baghdad, which is now controlled exclusively by Iraqis, to the American military bases out at the airport. We're being uprooted from our comfortable living quarters in shipping containers (where some have lived for three or four years) to something new and unknown. Many people are being sent home, sometimes on just a few days' notice. Meanwhile, the schedule for the move keeps changing, which means additional adjustments have to be made. The Army Colonel in charge of my division, who just recently arrived, came in to work one morning a few days ago at 8 a.m., found out at 9 that she was being bumped up to Deputy Commander, and at 1 p.m. was on the road to the new base to assume her new duties. (Gotta tell a story featuring her - will get to it in a minute). And while all this is going on, my group is working with two different customer organizations to nail down some new projects - which will be executed by an organization that has not been determined yet! Sound like fun to you? Actually, I am having fun with it.

One of the things that has really hit home to me during all this chaos is that the man with a plan is the man who gets things done. My boss is a smart guy, has been here a couple of years, really understands how the Corps works and how things get done in Iraq, and he has very definite ideas on what should be done in the future. For some time now, we have been preparing plans and briefings on things that seemed like pipe dreams, and they've seemingly gone nowhere. Then, when the stuff hits the fan, he lays out the plans to the bosses. "You don't like what you're getting from those other guys? Well, why don't you take a look at this? We gave it some thought a while back, and here's what we came up with ... " Fifteen minutes later, our plan has been adopted as the New Way Forward. Pretty cool, especially when you're the one who put the plan together.

Okay, now back to the Colonel. A few days ago, two of us were taking her over to another base here in the IZ. Since she's new here, we took her around to show her some of the IZ sights. We went up to Assassin's Gate, then turned and headed back down, next to a big building that still shows the pounding it took in the 2003 war. The Colonel pulled out her camera and rolled down the window (wouldn't you?), and the guy driving slowed down to let her get a good picture. Suddenly, an Iraqi army guard came running up, waving his arms, shouting "No picture! No picture!" Another guy stood in front of the truck, blocking our way. We stopped and he seemed very upset that she'd taken pictures of this blasted building. As if it hadn't been photographed a gazillion times already. Suddenly, he was in the back seat beside me, gesturing "Go! Go!" towards the guard shack a dozen yards up the road. Me, I was doing all I could to not bust out laughing, so I was no help at all to the poor Colonel and the guy driving. Anyway, we pulled up to the guardhouse and the guards blocked our way again while somebody scurried inside to find the duty American. He came out, asked a few questions, made sure the Colonel had deleted the pictures of the building, made nice with the Iraqi guards, and let us go. We promised not to take any more pictures of bombed-out buildings (okay, we lied) and off we went.

At which point I collapsed in the back seat, laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing. "Robert, how are you going to explain to the General that he needs to come down to the guard house and pick up his brand-new Colonel?" The Colonel didn't help when she innocently told other staff that we were all "briefly detained" ... here, "detained" has a very specific meaning that is not at all what happened to us ... which set off another round of over-reaction on the part of all concerned, while I just sat in the back with my hand over my face trying to hold it in again.

There's a serious side to this, of course. It's that the Iraqi security forces are much more aggressive in their jobs and are not at all afraid to stop American vehicles if they think we're out of line. No Americans have been "detained" yet ... my Colonel's comments notwithstanding ... but there are an increasing number of discussions between Americans and Iraqi authorities, even if the authorities are just manning a checkpoint.

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