Wednesday, April 29, 2009


I live in a shipping container.  Literally.  It's a standard 40-ft shipping container that has been converted into two living quarters.  In military parlance, it's a "Containerized Housing Unit", or CHU, pronounced just like it's spelled.  My room is the one on the bottom on this end.  I've got dirtbags in the front (again, literally: that's what those bluish shapes are, big wire mesh framed bags of dirt) and concrete T-walls behind me.  They're there to provide protection against things that might come flying at us at high speed.  Like bullets.  On the side of the container, you can still see the big steel doors.  Come to think of it, I hope they're welded or locked shut ... remind me to check on that tomorrow.  (This image, by the way, is a watercolor that I just finished up.)

Here are a few pictures of my own little nest.  As you can see, it's been upgraded from your basic shipping container.  It has rather stylish faux-white-pine panelling, a bed, a desk, and a large and noisy air conditioner (very necessary).  We also have an internet connection.  I've added a second screen since my MacBook's screen is so small.

Moving around the room a bit (3 feet from where the previous photo was taken), you can see more of the room.  I have a TV that I have yet to turn on ... it gets Armed Forces TV and even has a DVD player, but since I'm not big on TV, it just takes up space.  More importantly, I have a small refrigerator stocked with Diet Cokes, V8's, and the remnants of a 10-day-old Cinnabon.  And as you can see, my bed just barely fits.

The door next to the refrigerator is my front door.  The little closet doors are my hanging closet and most of my chest of drawers.  The little brown and tan thing is a plastic chest of drawers.

And here's the final corner of my little room, showing the door to my bathroom, with my very own hot-water tank that looks like it's about to fall off the wall.  That's because it IS about to fall off the wall.

I'm poking fun at my room, but I consider myself lucky.  There are lots of places here in Iraq where two or three people would be living in a room like this.  Also, I have a "wet" CHU, meaning I have running water and a bathroom.  Lots of CHUs out here are "dry", and their occupants have to use the men's or women's communal latrine somewhere (hopefully) not too far away.  Lots of fun for those middle-of-the-night emergencies!

So where do you put a collection of CHUs?  Why, in CHUville, of course.  Ours are stacked two high and lined up in neat, Army-regulation rows.  Actually, you could never take a photo that would match my watercolor up above, as there's another row of these little houses that would be in the way.  We make efficient use of space.  

So that's how I live out here in a war zone.  Not too shabby, all things considered, and I have certainly lived in worse conditions ... even some that I had to pay for.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"Weekends" in Wackyville

I got up early this morning, got into my jogging clothes, walked out the door, and then turned around and walked right back in.  We had a bad "dust fog" going.  It looked just like a very thick, slightly yellowish mist, one that would do San Francisco proud.  Except it wasn't fog, it was dust.  Incredibly fine stuff that just floated in the still air.  Lots of people wear face masks to filter the dust out, or hold handkerchiefs over their faces, or something, anything, to give you clean(er) air.  Take a normal breath and you can feel the grit in your teeth.  Before I went 50 yards, I felt like I needed a shower again.  I couldn't see anything past 100 yards.  Nasty stuff.

But it started clearing up pretty quickly.  It was noticeably better by noon.  By this evening, it was almost gone.  Our temperatures were 20 degrees cooler than yesterday, too.

Today was our "weekend".  You guys at home get two days off.  We get a half day.  And I wound up working most of that.  And I learned a lesson today: never ever ever eat chicken fried steak in our DFAC.  Never.  It took two Alka-Seltzer and a can of Diet Pepsi to calm that bad boy down.

On the positive side, in my one hour off late this afternoon, I started what will be a watercolor sketch of my little hooch.  More on that as it develops.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thursday Thoughts

Here are a couple more pictures from our recent sightseeing trip.  

Getting to the roof of the building so we could look out over Baghdad involved negotiating places that OSHA would not approve of.

When you work in a place like this, helicopters are always around.  Frankly, I kinda dig it.  They're a reminder to me that we're in a very different environment and to make the most of it.

Since my last post, the weather has warmed up a lot.  I can say that my carefully calibrated Skipometer classified the temperature yesterday and today as officially "hot".  Yesterday was 99 and today was 102.  It's time to start lugging the water bottles around and to make sure we have our hats if we're going to be outside for more than a few minutes.  The dust is bad, too - I carry a bottle of Visine around with me for when it starts turning my eyeballs into red-hot sandpaper.

Things are going well at work.  I like the position I'm in and the people I work with.  We're working on some important issues for the Corps of Engineers for the remainder of our time in Iraq.  General Odierno has said that the military will be out of here in late 2011 and we're proceeding down that path.  The small bases that have been all over the country, and all over Baghdad, are shutting down left and right.  Some of the activities that took place are being shifted to the few large bases that will remain for another 12-18 months, others are being sent off to Afghanistan, and others are just being ended or sent home.  I've felt a big change in the atmosphere since I left in early March.  There's a rapidly increasing awareness that we're starting to wind things up now - right now - and the tempo is getting faster.

Most of the people I talk to think that it's about time.  Iraq is very fragile, but it seems to be holding together.  Who knows what'll happen in the future - it could hold up, it could blow up, or it could muddle through somehow.  But we're at the point where we aren't making the decisions now, the Iraqis are, and since it's their country, that's the way it should be.  We've done a lot to train them and restore a lot of infrastructure, services, and capabilities.  We've spent a ton of money and then some.  There's still a security problem, particularly up north, but it's a small fraction of what it was a year or two ago.

I read a few other blogs by military people both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and the difference is striking.  The soldiers in Afghanistan are still in pretty heavy combat.  Here, it seems, they're bored stiff.  They're wandering around the bases, doing normal duties at their desks.  

There's still a lot to do here before the last plane leaves, though.  I feel pretty good about what I can contribute to the effort.  The next year is going to be an interesting ride.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Baghdad From A Rooftop

A group of us got to do a little sightseeing today. It was a beautiful day, so we went up on the roof of one of the buildings here in the International Zone. Here are a few of my pictures.

This shows one of Saddam's parade grounds, with Iraqi government buildings in the distance.  You can also see one of the crossed-sword arches on the right.  Behind it is the "Flying Saucer", which in reality is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Saddam's palaces were covered with marble.  Here's what the brickwork underneath really looks like.
This is the Palestine Hotel, right in the middle of the city.

Here's your intrepid reporter, with Hussein's Grand Mosque (never finished) in the background.

And here's a closeup of the Grand Mosque.  

All in all, an enjoyable time.  Hey, you takes 'em where you finds 'em, huh?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Army Recruiting Poster

Found this in one of our files ... too good not to share!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Gaining Traction

I'm having the wonderful experience of walking into a new job and being able to contribute something from Day 1.  Now that doesn't happen all that often, does it?  It certainly hasn't with me.  When I first came to Baghdad with the State Department, it took me quite a while to get a workable handle on what was going on and what my role could be.  This time around, with the Corps of Engineers, I'm familiar with the issues, know the players, have a good grasp of the background, and have a lot of my own hairbrained ideas for moving forward.  

I'm working in a small section of (for the moment) six people.  Three of them are working on wrapping up (and cleaning up) financial records.  All are sharp and self-motivated - you can practically see the numbers flying as they dig through the records.  Me, I'm clueless about that stuff, so I'm happy to let them do their thing.  The other three of us are focused on planning efforts.  Our organization has some major developments coming down the pike over the next twelve months, and we three are part of a group that's looking at how the organization is going to carry them out.  For example, to achieve a particular goal, there may be four different ways identified.  We look at each of the four ways, estimate how much each one costs, how long it would take, what the problems and benefits are, and make recommendations as to which one best meets our needs.  What really keeps it interesting is that the environment keeps changing, and our plans have to be quickly adaptable.  For example, we may plan on putting a contingent of people into one small base, and after we put the plan in motion, we get word that the base is going to close.  Now we have to find an alternative location that can provide our people with living quarters, food, office space, communications, transportation, and access to the various projects they may be working on.  Sound like fun?  Maybe not to you, but to me, it's pretty exciting stuff.  I'm trying to ensure that our people can do the projects that Iraqis need to make their country viable again.

When I'm not out saving Iraq, I've been working on a more mundane but critically important task: being able to videochat with my wife.  Our computers are Macs, which have the iChat video capability built in.  It's like Skype, only with higher-quality video.  iChat worked great when I was going through training in Virginia.  When I was at the Embassy here in Baghdad, it wasn't all that reliable.  Whenever the bandwidth got a bit tight, usually in the evenings when everybody was in their rooms talking to family back home, iChat often wouldn't make the connection.  But since I've been here, Janis and I haven't been able to connect on iChat at all.  We couldn't even get a voice connection.  All that worked was the text chat.  I tried resetting my proxies, connecting to different lines, complaining to our IT guys, and lighting an incense stick in front of a Buddha.  Nothing worked.

Until tonight.  I decided to see if Skype would work any better.  So I downloaded Skype today and after fiddling around with it for a while, got it to run.  I was even able to call Janis over the phone with it.  Cool!  So she downloaded it to her computer, I talked her through the installation and registration process, and voila!  There she was, on the screen.  I could call her, she could call me, and we could finally see each other.  And I have the ability to call anybody in the United States on a regular telephone without fiddling with an expensive calling card.  Life is good again!  So it looks to me like iChat is good when there's a high-quality connection.  When the quality gets iffy, then Skype is the way to go.  If you have a Mac, you need them both.

Okay, folks, 'nuf for tonight.  Time for this old puppy to hit the rack.  More thoughts on living the dream in Baghdad in a day or so.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Getting Up To Speed

The reason for my prolonged silence is that I arrived at my new command on Monday and have been running hard ever since.  When I get back to my room at night, it's about all I can do to unwind a few minutes before hitting the rack.

My flight from Kuwait to Baghdad was scheduled for the morning after I arrived.  Our show time was 3 a.m. (yes, that's right, the military doesn't follow the same rules as Southwest Airlines).  We put on our IBA (individual body armor, a.k.a. kevlar vests and helmets) two hours later, climbed into the buses, and were taken out to the C130 sitting on the flightline.  Which, of course, wasn't anywhere near ready.  About an hour later the pilots showed up.  Once they finished pre-flighting the plane, we were packed in like sardines and off we went.  When I say "like sardines", I mean it: I couldn't even move my left leg for most of the flight because it was jammed between the legs and feet of the people sitting across from me ... and they couldn't move their feet because they were jammed between me and my immediate neighbors'.  "Personal space" simply does not exist on a C130.  After an hour and a half flight, we touched down at Baghdad International Airport and taxiied over to the military side.  Those of us going to the Corps of Engineers commands were picked up and taken to another facility.  Then a little while later, we were loaded into armored vehicles for the convoy into the International Zone.  The trip went smoothly and quickly.  Soon enough we were parked in front of our new home at the Gulf Region Division.

Since then, it's been a constant run.  I've been briefed and badged and checked-in and signed-up.  I've been learning the ropes in the new job.  I've been taking Melatonin, which helps me get to sleep and stay asleep at night, despite the fact that my body clock is lost in somebody else's time zone.  I've been meeting new people and getting re-acquainted with old friends ("old friends" in Baghdad is anybody you've known over two weeks). 

I have not been able to videochat with my wife since I left Virginia.  I think it's a bandwidth issue, but it's getting annoying.  At least we've been able to text.  I guess I'll have to go get one of those phone cards from the BX.

Weather here is really nice.  It's in the upper 60's or low 70's in the morning, going to around 90 or so in the afternoon ... and since it's so dry, it feels great.  Today it was windy and cloudy, so tomorrow might be a very dusty day.  We'll see.

And that's about enough for now.  I've got more to talk about, but I'm a walking zombie and need my rest.  

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Chilling at Ali Al Salem

So here I sit in an internet cafe on the world's slowest computer. I think this thing is running Windows 95 ... the original version ... as originally installed on this antique clunker of a machine. The monitor is about as sharp as a Q-tip and the keyboard clatters like a silverware drawer. But what the heck, it's working, and I'm not doing anything high-tech anyway.

We had a decent flight from Dulles to Kuwait. United Airlines is not exactly my favorite customer-service company right now. We got there pretty early and tried to check in. United has gone over to the Dark Side, making customers do their own checkin as much as possible, and actual agents are hard to find since they're running back and forth between four or five open counters each. United's computers didn't like any of the documents or information that I provided - not my passport, not my last name, not my confirmation number. Maybe it was the fact that I was on a one-way ticket or something. Whatever the case eventually let me in and tried to sell me all sorts of upgrades (a first-class upgrade would've been $800 - NO THANKS!) before it finally printed out a ticket-looking thing that said, in effect, "you're sorta checked in, but we won't take your bags until it's less than 6 hours before your flight." At the moment, it was 6 hours and 8 minutes before the flight. The ticket agent didn't give a hoot, he just said to go get in line again. Which I grumpily did. The next time through, the computers again didn't like any of the documentation I provided, even though I was supposedly checked in already. But eventually it decided to let me on, and another United agent with no personality whatsoever slapped some baggage claim tags on my stuff and sent me on my way.

The agents at the gates were a bit more customer-service-oriented. I'd been stuck in the middle of the middle row (ugh) and the United web site wouldn't let me change it. But the lady at the gate found me a window seat which was a vast improvement.

We took off on time and the skies, for a little while, were clear. We passed just south of Baltimore and then Philadelphia and their lights were bright and sharp. I was able to pick out Baltimore's Inner Harbor and other landmarks that I was familar with. Then cloud cover took over and hid everything before we flew directly over New York. After dinner, I propped my head against the bulkhead and slept pretty well, considering I was jammed into a small seat with no room to stretch or move. Our route took us over Europe and Turkey, and the skies started clearing again as we hit the border with Iraq. It was fun to watch the land change from the mountains to the flat Mesopotamian crescent as we flew over eastern Iraq and began the descent into Kuwait. Twelve hours after takeoff at Dulles, we had a smooth landing in Kuwait. After getting our bags and clearing customs, we were met by our contact and taken to Ali Al Salem airbase. We'll be here until we catch a flight to Baghdad.

So I'm almost back in country. Now I'm starting to get excited about getting back to work. I'm trained, I'm tired, and I need a shower. Sounds pretty normal to me!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Here We Go ...

Our training will finish up today.  Most of it has been a review for those of us who've been in Iraq or Afghanistan before.  I've got my bags packed, except for couple of loose ends (like my computer and shaving kit).  In a few minutes, I'll check out of here and head to class.  This afternoon, we'll head off to the airport, and this evening we'll get on the plane and launch downrange.

I'm ready to go now.  It's been a long road since I made the decision to go with the Corps - that was back in January, four months ago.  There have been lots of forms to fill out, online courses to take, medical tests, forms to fill out, vaccinations, phone calls, travel, and more forms to fill out.  Finally, all that is (almost) behind me and it's time to go do what I'm supposed to be doing.  That feels pretty good.

I'm not happy about leaving home again.  This departure is more difficult than my last one.  Maybe because I was home for the past month, I reconnected with Janis and the dogs and our friends, and I really don't want to leave them.  Having the ability to videochat with Janis, though, is a big, big help.  MUCH better than my deployments with the Navy, when we were lucky to get a letter every couple of weeks.

So now I'm off.  Next post will be from Kuwait or Baghdad.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Going Through Training

Billy Bad-Ass here with an update from the War on Unemployment.  We've now completed two days of training with the Corps of Engineers.  Our class is pretty interesting: most are long-time Corps employees, a few of us are new hires, and there are a few others who are being detailed from other agencies.  And there's one guy whose status is really in limbo ... neither he nor the Corps have figured out for sure whether he's still owned by his originating federal agency or whether he's the Corps' now.  It all makes for some entertaining discussions.  Most of class members have been to Iraq or Afghanistan before, some of them for several tours.  What's interesting is that we can see the nation's shift in emphasis to Afghanistan, as that's where the majority of our people are heading.

Yesterday we were issued all our gear.  I was afraid they'd load us up with two or three duffel bags full of useless crap we'd never use, but they didn't.  It was all stuff that we need, and all mine fit into one duffel bag.  I got yet another shot (anthrax this time; sumbitch is still sore) and gave some blood for a DNA sample.  The classroom sessions have been moderately boring on the whole - those of us who've been downrange have experienced pretty much everything they're talking about, but then, there always seem to be some new points.  At least we're getting to see some of the key people we're going to be dealing with over the phone.  Yesterday they hit us with five video training presentations right after lunch.  I didn't think anything could be worse, but then today they had a guy go through five computer-based training programs about computer security, one after the other, without a break.  Yessir, just the thing to show to a bunch of people right after lunch!  Those of us who weren't comatose at the end were clawing at the door to get out.  And since we were 20 minutes over schedule, the next briefer didn't give us a break and just launched straight into her presentation.  We damn near made the CBS Evening News: "A riot broke out today in Winchester, Virginia, when a group of rowdy student detainees protested their torture from endless PowerPoint presentations."

One of the things I've been trying to do in the evenings is eat stuff I won't be able to eat in Iraq.  Last night it was Mexican and tonight it was Italian pizza.  Yum!  At lunch, they bused us over to a Golden Corral all-you-can-eat restaurant.  Kinda like eating in the DFAC, except the food is better and we have to pay for it.  I've noticed every time I go in there that there are people who evidently hit an all-you-can-eat place for every meal.  And they don't miss any, either.

Time to hit the rack.  We have another early morning tomorrow ... no real reason for it, but that's the military for ya.  

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Vacation's Over - Back To Work

My month-long hiatus from a full-time job has ended.  I'm in Winchester, Virginia, for training with the Army Corps of Engineers.  I'll be here until Friday, when I go down to Dulles and get on a plane bound for Kuwait.  My "vacation" was extended twice, as noted in previous postings, and now I'm ready to get back to work.  It's not that I wanted to leave home (FAR from it!!), but when you're supposed to be doing something, well dammit, it doesn't feel right when you're not.

Janis and I had a great last few days together.  On Friday night, we went to a party at our friend Genie Maples' studio.  We got to see quite a few artist friends that we hadn't seen in a while, including Daniel Nevins, Wendy Whitson, John Mac Kah, and Constance Humphries.  It was really good to see them all again and play catch-up on what they were up to.  On Saturday evening, we had dinner with our next-door neighbors.  We ate way too much shrimp over rice (yum), drank a bit too much beer, and finished it off with chocolate-chip-cookie-and-Cool-Whip sandwiches.  We played the original version of Trivial Pursuit, too, which was really interesting on a variety of levels.  Wikipedia says this version was published in 1981, which makes it 28 years old now, and answering near-30-year-old trivia questions as if they were current news can be a bit disconcerting ... such as those about the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall, and most especially movies and entertainment stars.  Note to self: time to get a more current set of questions!

Today was tough.  After I gave the dogs one final morning walk, Janis took me down to the airport.  Leaving J and the two girls is always hard.  We two humans knew what was up, but even the dogs seemed to understand that Daddy was going away again.  I managed to get pretty much settled down by the time our boarding call was announced.  While the plane was taxiing to the end of the runway, we heard this angelic voice coming from a few rows up.  Some little girl, maybe 3 or 4 years of age, was very excited about being on the plane.  As we started our takeoff roll, we could hear her coaxing the plane as if it was a pet: " ... uuuppp .... uuuppp .... UUUPPP ..." Then the nose came up and the plane launched itself into the air, and our little cheerleader cried out "AND AWAAAYYYY!!!"

Once I got to Dulles Airport, I met up with the group that was heading to this week's training in Winchester.  Our guidance had noted we'd be shuttled up here by a limo service.  Now I don't know about you, but in my experience, "limo service" in such cases normally means a 15-passenger van.  Not this time.  They took five of us out and loaded us into an honest-to-God stretched Lincoln limousine.  The next group followed in a stretched Ford Excursion that looked like it could carry a brigade of troops in full combat tuxedos.  You can see our limo here - ours was the one with the black interior as seen in the bottom right photo.  We all thought that stretched limos would definitely be the thing to have in Baghdad or Kabul.

Now I'm sitting here in my room in the Holiday Inn.  This is a really nice place.  It's brand new.  There's an exercise room like almost all hotels have nowadays, and I went down there and pushed some weights around for a bit to start working off some of the pounds I think I put on while at home.  Then I had a really first-rate salad in the hotel's dining room - a big surprise because who goes to a Holiday Inn for a good dinner?  Now I've got to do a bit of ironing and then hit the rack.  We've got an early morning tomorrow and I need to be sharp.  

Friday, April 03, 2009

More Sketch Stuff

I thought I'd post some more images and thoughts on drawing and painting from life.  We had another life drawing session in my studio on Wednesday night.  I got to paint a little more from the figure, including adding a figure to last week's oil sketch.

Here's a detail of the figure that I did last week.

Now here's the oil sketch with the new figure added.

We usually start our figure drawing sessions with about 10 minutes' worth of short, 30-second gesture poses.  Here's one page of those sketches - the paper is about 30"x24", which gives you an idea as to the size.  Sketches like this are a good way to loosen up both the model and the artists.  I've found that if you just start with a longer pose, then the model usually settles into a really boring position and the artists (meaning me) can't draw or paint worth a hoot.  It's like trying to play a baseball or basketball game without warming up.  

Sure has been fun working with real, live models again.  I have been pretty happy with the way that my drawing and painting abilities have picked up almost where they left off last year.  But these sessions are ending now that I'm heading back to Iraq.  Sigh. 

Today I'm going to pack up a box full of stuff to send to myself - oil paints, acrylic mediums, and a few other nitnoid items.  On Sunday, I'll be heading out to the Corps of Engineers training facility for five days worth of learning to be a Corps guy.  Then next Friday, I'll get on a plane and head off to never-never land again.  Vacation's almost over - time to get back to work.