Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Really Orange Day

It's baaaa-aaaaack. The dust, that is. Yes, it really is this orange. Damn stuff is coming in my air conditioner in my hooch as I write this, getting all over everything - desk, computer, bed, munchies, clean clothes (yes, I do have some ... or at least, I did).

Our little compound.

Here's how it looks from safely inside.

We'll be cleaning this up for days!

Okay, here's one from inside my bathroom. How would you like to see this sign hanging over your sink? I go through a lot of bottled water.

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.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Changes in the IZ

In several posts recently, I've talked about changes that are taking place in Iraq, and especially here in Baghdad. They're being driven by the Security Agreement that was signed last fall, Iraqi eagerness to take control of their own country, and the improving security situation. There are a lot of things going on right here in the International Zone that are part of this.

For one thing, my command, the Gulf Region Division (GRD) of the US Army Corps of Engineers, is moving. We're leaving the IZ, where we've been for five years, and going out to Victory Base, which is the huge military operation out at the airport. Some offices have already left. Mine will be one of the last. Good thing, too, since the first couple of groups have had plenty of, shall we say, "learning experiences". Meaning their moves were all screwed up and I'm learning what NOT to do! It's already strange to walk through offices that were bustling with activity just a few days ago. Now there might just be a few boxes of assorted cables on the floor, plus an odd sheet of paper here or there, and an unplugged clock stuck at 11:42. In a few more weeks, all our operations will be gone and a crew will start dismantling and removing all our remaining facilities, the grounds will be cleaned up, and the T-walls will go away. By October it'll belong to the Iraqi government again.

The same thing is happening across the street at the Ibn Sina Hospital. This was originally built for Saddam Hussein's personal medical staff. During the worst of the conflict, it had one of the busiest emergency rooms in Baghdad, with helicopters constantly bringing new patients in and taking old ones out. Now the outpatient clinic has closed, replaced by another over at Camp Prosperity (also here in the IZ; it'll be here for a couple of years). The rest of the hospital will close in a couple of weeks and move to a new facility at Sather Air Force Base, which is also out at the airport.

There's a base literally across the street from the Embassy known as Union III. It was home to a lot of little shops, with rug dealers, jewelry, pirated DVDs, and the famous Oasis pizza shop. All of these have closed and their spaces are being renovated for offices. The stores are not gone, however: they are moving to the mausoleum at the other end of the base. Yes, a mausoleum. Hey, when you don't have a lot of choices, you use what you've got! Some of the stores are already open in their new location while others are still moving. Meanwhile, new housing units and other facilities are coming into the base and it is getting extremely busy. Union III will be one of the last bases to close down as we pull out of Iraq.

So that's a glimpse of what's going on here. We're drawing down, and the organizations that will remain for a while are moving to one of the few large bases. Many of these organizations will go away within the next year. And if you think we're dragging our feet, think again: the pace is actually accelerating. My command was planning on making some significant changes in the March timeframe, but that's just been pushed up to October. And that seems to be the way everything is going.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ask Me About My Grandson!

I have been negligent, dear reader. I have not posted any pictures of my grandson in a long time. Since Rick and Julie just sent us some, I think it's about time to share the wealth. So here are some photos of the little guy from last weekend.

Wading in the river ... it don't get no better!

Well, maybe it does!

Jacks and Dad.

Jacks and Mom

Plumb tuckered out. 'Night, all!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More Randomness

I got a haircut the other day. Iraqi barbers are just like American ones: they yabber away among themselves the whole time they're snipping away at your hair. And they make sure that some of your curly locks land on top of your nose and tickle the hell out of it until you can sneak a hand out from under the sheet. Our barbers have two real barber's chairs and one that looks remarkably like the chairs that are in all of our offices, complete with those little wheels. Iraqi barbers have one little trick that I've never run across anywhere else: the string. Yes, it's a string. They wind it up around their fingers and use it to pluck extraneous hairs out of your eyebrows and ears and anywhere else those extraneous hairs pop up. Don't ask me how they do it. I always have my eyes scrunched shut and have never actually watched. Suffice to say, it feels weird but it's effective.

Coming back from the DFAC tonight, walking along the street, we came across a street urchin selling DVD's at two for $5. We all bought two or four each, including me. Yes, they're black market, but as a wise sage that I worked with in Sarajevo once said, "a black market is better than no market at all". And nobody is a better salesman than a cute little kid with a woebegone expression.

I've been battling bureaucratic stupidity ever since I got here. I had a security clearance when I worked at the Embassy. When I came to work in DoD, we all thought my clearance would transfer right over. We thought wrong. The State Department and DoD don't share a common security database, and evidently it is impossible for some DoD clerk to sit down and type the same information from one database into another - this despite the fact that there's a law on the books requiring them to be able to do that. So we've had to elevate this to some ridiculously high level in Washington where it has languished for three months now. My Army clerk told me that it was quicker just to do a brand-new security investigation, even though one was just completed on me in January! Not only that, the new investigation would be done by the very same people who did the first one! I ask you, does this make sense? (You: "NOOOOOOO!!") So, faced with lack of movement at some high level in DoD, I submitted the paperwork to start another security investigation. Last week I was told that they couldn't process the forms because my fingerprints were taken on an SF86 card when they should have been done on an SF87. We're beyond the realm of the ridiculous now, into the world of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone: the only difference between the two forms is a slight re-arrangement of data boxes. Your tax dollars at work.

More bureaucratic bumbling: My command is going to move in a few weeks from the International Zone to our new digs out at Victory Base (which is out at the airport). For some reason, this means that we have to have a new zip code. So even though we're only going five miles or so down the road, and all our mail comes in and out of Victory Base now, just like it will then, we have to have a new zip code. And our postal operation closed down today to start the move. When did they finally tell us what our new zip code will be? Today. Really thoughtful and considerate support for those of us who have magazine subscriptions, huh? The Navy sends ships all over the world, all the time, has for years, and doesn't need zip code changes - why does the Army need a change just to go five miles down the road? Boggles the mind.

One good-news story: our DFAC has suddenly had plenty of peanut butter Clif bars. I've been stocking up - ya never know how long the supply will last!

Some of our people put out bread crumbs and other goodies for the birds. We have tons of little brown sparrows around here, along with those dark gray rats-with-wings (we have rats-without-wings, too). Anyway, there was a mother sparrow and her little one, and the mom was teaching junior about foraging. The little one would peck on the ground a few times and then look up at mom and open its beak wide, then mom would give it a treat, and junior would wiggle all over with excitement. Cutest thing I've seen in ages.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sen. Kerry's Remarks on Terry Barnich and Maged Hussein

This item was sent as a comment to my previous post. However, I thought it worth a post of its own.


Hi Skip. I thought you might like to know that after several weeks of working with the Senate Foreign Relations staff, Chairman John Kerry has placed a remembrance into the Congressional Record regarding Maged Hussein and Terry Barnich, your two friends who were killed on Memorial Day 2009 when their vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb outside of Fallujah, Iraq.

Kerry addressed the memorial statement to President Obama during the July 7, 2009 Senate meeting in Washington, DC.

I am sure that Maged’s and Terry's many colleagues and friends, both at Embassy Baghdad and around the world, are grateful for this honourable tribute.

I have copied a summary of the CR page below.

[Congressional Record: July 7, 2009 (Senate)][Page S7189]
From the Congressional Record Online via GPO Access []


Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, I would like to say a few words about two brave Americans who were tragically killed in Iraq earlier this year. On May 25, 2009, Terrance Barnich of Illinois and Maged Hussein of Florida died when an improvised explosive device detonated near a construction site outside of Fallujah.

Terry Barnich was the deputy director of the Iraq Transition Assistance Office in Baghdad. He had signed on for multiple tours in Iraq and was the senior American expert responsible for expanding the generation of electricity across Iraq. Dr. Maged Hussein was the senior adviser for water resources in the Iraq Transition Assistance Office and a civilian member of the Army Corps of Engineers. He, too, volunteered for multiple tours in Iraq.

These two men represent the very best America has to offer. Both gave up the comforts of home to live in trailers in Baghdad in an effort to help provide a better future for Iraq. Countless thousands of Iraqi civilians have access to electricity and potable water as a result of Terry's and Maged's efforts. Along with the personal tragedy, their loss represents a serious setback for American reconstruction efforts in Iraq. We mourn their passing and offer our deepest condolences to their families.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Random Thoughts

It's a scorcher today. We're getting into the full-blown heat of summer, with highs around 115 and lows in the upper 90's. Its the kind of heat that makes your metal eyeglass frames burn when they touch your cheek. Sunglasses are mandatory, or else you'll be blinded by the transition from indoors to out. Those of us who are office slugs almost never go out. I've shifted my jogging from tootling around the compound to pounding the treadmill in the air-conditioned gym. When its 100 degrees at 9 pm, I'm not going to jog outside!

Walking over to the DFAC in the morning, I usually pass by a line of Iraqis waiting to go through security. I always say "sabah al khair" ("good morning") or "sala'amu aleikum" (peace be with you). You should see their faces light up! I guess they're used to Americans passing them by, or ignoring them, or something, but give them a greeting in Arabic and they're surprised and delighted. It's always good to start the day out with a smile.

The Washington Post has an excellent article today on life in Baghdad. It's a very well researched, composed, and written look at the competing tensions in Iraq. The balance between security and freedoms, coupled with nostalgia for a cosmopolitan Baghdad that hasn't existed for decades, is a delicate one here. The writer, Anthony Shadid, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his coverage of the Iraq conflict.

We lost four Marines in Afghanistan today. Ever since my two friends were killed in Fallujah, I feel these losses personally.

I was able to shed two big jobs today. They were time sumps that pulled me away from a couple of really important tasks. Now I should be back down to 12-hour days.

Ever hear of Clif bars? They're one of those energy bars and are very popular over here. One of our DFACs has cornered the market on the Black Cherry Almond versions. Every night, they have boxes of the things out, giving them away. Unfortunately, they taste like mud pies. However, you gotta pay attention, because every now and then the DFAC will put out something really good, like the Crunchy Peanut Butter ones, without telling anybody. I can eat a bunch of those. But not tonight. Tonight they had the mud pies. Sigh.

Friday, July 10, 2009

In High Gear

The pace at work has hit high subsonic speeds over the past couple of weeks. We were anticipating this might happen and it has. Basically, the Corps of Engineers does lots of construction and other projects all over the country. We have several organizations that we work closely with, primarily the State Department and a few military commands. Two of these primary customers suddenly want to throw a lot of projects our way. So we're scrambling, trying to take care of both of them, make sure they get what they need, balance out the priorities, and get this huge logjam of work through the system and out the door. Your intrepid reporter is playing a role in that, mostly flailing around noisily without much effect.

What's funny is that the two customers are so different. One of them just had a change in leadership. The previous person in charge was a bit, shall we say, "flighty". It was, "We're going to do this." A day later, "who told you that? We're doing something else!" Another day, "No, it's always been this one plan". Their direction kept changing faster than a pinball. Very difficult to work with. However, that individual is now gone and the new leadership is 180 degrees different. She's a very decisive woman who clearly understands what she intends to do. We had several projects that were sitting on the shelf waiting for some kind of decision from the previous leadership - we dusted them off, presented them to her, and she made up her mind right there that we'd do them. Cool! So we're off and running on some very worthwhile programs. They'll help Iraqi government officials do their jobs better. Your tax dollars will be well spent.

The other customer? Quite different. It almost seems as if the individual in charge is trying to come up with as many roadblocks as possible. I don't understand it - if your job is to get as many good projects completed as possible, I would think that you'd be doing everything in your power to make it happen. In fact, it's the opposite. We know how to do the projects on their list - we've done a gazillion of them already, and none of their proposals are difficult. But we need to get them soon, because after a certain date, the money goes away. Meanwhile, the individual in charge is coming up with one new monkey wrench after another. It's as if they know they're not going to succeed, so they're trying to come up with an excuse - "hey, we tried, but the Corps just couldn't do it!" It's sad to see, because the proposed projects would do a lot to improve essential government services - things like delivering electricity and water, enhancing security in some key areas, that sort of thing. I just don't see very many of them getting done under the current leadership.

Oh, well, that's just me grousing. Been a long day. On the positive side, we had some kick-butt burgers last night. Today was a beautiful day, nice and clear, with no orange dust blowing in through my air conditioner. And right now it's 11 pm and still 100 degrees outside.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Another Orange Day

So what is this? We've had orange days for five days in a row! I woke up this morning and didn't even have to open the blinds - I could see the orange light coming in around the edges. This is getting old. Every day, I take a shower, get all cleaned up, head out the door to work, and before I get there, I need a shower again. And my commute is all of 1 minute 33 seconds, hooch to desk, by actual measurement.

So here are a few pictures from wandering around the IZ today.

Visibility earlier today was maybe an eighth of a mile. Nasty dust!

This arch is on one of our FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) here in the IZ.

Let's go shopping!

Postcards? You want postcards? Maybe some pirated DVDs? Posters of Britney Spears? Lots of quality stuff here!

"We'll Surprise you With our Prices." I dunno, makes me nervous ...

Last night I was channel surfing, hoping to find the Daytona race, but it didn't come on until 3 am our time (rats). Discovered that you can get "Ugly Betty" dubbed into Arabic on the Al Arabiya network. Somehow that just seems wrong. Not as wrong, though, as when Janis and I found "Hogan's Heroes" dubbed into German on the tube in Chiemsee.

Yesterday was July 4th. Fortunately, the insurgents didn't celebrate it with any fireworks. Actually, it was a work day for us. Our holiday is today, July 5th. Don't ask me why. We have the full day off, which is why we were out gallivanting around the IZ and taking pictures of all the dust. We ate lunch at the DFAC at FOB Union III and, wonder of wonders, their salad bar had fresh spinach! So I had myself a big plate of it. Our DFAC specializes in soggy soyburgers, so fresh spinach was a big treat. Tonight, my command is having an all-American cookout, with burgers and dogs. Somehow, eating a soyburger seasoned with orange dust just doesn't appeal to me. Think I'll eat at our Dirtbag DFAC instead.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Burger Night

On Thursdays, our little gang goes out for burgers. There's a DFAC here in the IZ (I won't say which one - it's a secret!) that makes the best burgers this side of New York. Truly. Now, all the DFACs here make mass-produced burgers as part of their regular fare. Some do a pretty good job. But there's one that goes the extra step. If you ask, they'll go to the cooler and pull out the good stuff: 100% beef, perfectly seasoned, shaped by hand, and they'll grill it to your specifications. Want some American cheese on that? Sure. A double burger? No problem. The cook is a friendly guy with an unpronounceable name who knows how to cook 'em right. Getting fresh burgers cooked to order takes an extra bit of time, so we stand there by the window, sniffing the grill like kids sniff glue. Finally they're done and we scurry off to the table. Can't let 'em get cold - you have to eat 'em while they're still hot. Ohmigawd, it's epicurean bliss!

Not only do they do fabulous burgers, but their chili is pretty fabulous, too. It's nothing fancy, just good ol' spicy chili done right. One of our gang tried their steak-on-a-stick tonight and reported that it was as good as the burgers and chili. I didn't bother, my burger and my small bowl of chili was all I needed. Well, I needed a beer, too, but that ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

I mentioned "our little gang". We have a group of about eight that go to meals and sneak off to other FOBs together. It's a tight group, mostly officers, from a young Air Force captain to a crusty Navy Commander, with a few of us civilians mixed in, of which half are retired military. In the Navy, we called a group of officers like this the wardroom. It's pretty cool to be part of a real wardroom again. There's a comaraderie of shared experiences, teamwork, helping each other with the load, and watching each other's backs. When a good wardroom comes along, it's because everybody is part of the same team, like it or not, and going through a challenging experience together.

We have a good batch of people. They're smart. Actually, they're scary smart. One is an Air Force astronaut engineer, another has a PhD in aeronautical engineering, and a third has a PhD in geology. One has negotiated billion-dollar shipbuilding contracts. One civilian, who looked like an innocent in over his head, actually has one of the sharpest minds in the Corps and a will of steel when he chooses to exercise it. Any one of these people could easily have an out-of-control ego, but none do. Not that the rest of us would let them get away with it, even if they did.

Groups like this are not uncommon over here. I think that's one reason why so many civilians keep coming back, or never leaving - the experience of being a part of a tight group that's working on something vital and important. There's nothing like it.

But before you get the wrong idea: when my tour is up next April, I am not extending! I've got a wife and two little dogs waiting for me at home. So while I like the situation I've got here, the one at home is more important.