Monday, August 31, 2009

Good Reading

For those twelve people in the States who still care about how things are going in Iraq, I offer up a few good articles.

The New York Times consistently has the best coverage of Iraq. That's probably because they're the only major US-based news organization that still has permanent staff in-country. Yesterday, they had a very good article about how Iraqis see Americans. It's well-written and discusses some of the subtleties of the relationship that have profound implications for the long term.

Last week, they had another article about how Iraqis of all groups are co-existing, and even having fun together. There is a large lake out west, in Anbar Province. Now the lake is a destination for day trips for thousands of people from Baghdad and the surrounding area. People are doing what people do at lakes or beaches anywhere: swimming, playing, dancing to music, flirting, having fun.

For a couple of years, the Times has carried a blog written by their Baghdad-based staff, almost all of whom are Iraqis. That blog has now morphed into one called "At War" and covers Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. It seems to have lost some of its personal flavor and become a collection of somewhat impersonal op-ed pieces, but there are still some good postings that provide an insight beyond the headlines.

Most news reports about Iraq seem to focus on death, destruction, and political problems. News outlets always seem to prefer bad news stories. Sells more papers, I guess. But there's another side to the story. Most of us who came here of our own volition did so to try to make a difference in the country. Here's a press release from the Corps of Engineers about a project that was just finished. Yes, it's a press release, so it's not an "unbiased" bit of reporting. That doesn't change the fact that this is a success story, about a large project we (and you - it was your tax dollars that paid for it) have completed. It'll make a difference in the lives of a lot of young kids.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Musings on a Friday Night

I like Fridays. Friday morning is my weekend. You guys at home get two whole days off every week; we get either Friday morning or afternoon off. It's a 65-hour workweek out here. So on Friday mornings, I sleep in late ... this morning was a whole 20 minutes extra. Then I got dressed and strolled over to the DFAC to have a nice, leisurely breakfast. Ran into a couple of friends and we sat there nursing some really bad coffee and yukking it up for an hour. Then back to the barracks, where I did some laundry and worked on a watercolor for a while. This was my first time playing with paints in a month or more, so let's just say I'm a little rusty. Okay, a LOT rusty. Still, it was good to push some paints around again.

The other day, I got hold of the vehicle keys and decided that I wanted something other than DFAC fare for dinner. So I drove down to the BX and treated myself to a Taco Bell dinner. Never been a big fan of Taco Bell, and this stuff was nothing to post in a blog about, but hey, it wasn't DFAC, and that was good enough for me! Went into the BX to pick up a couple of things, and walked out with a couple of new CD's ... one of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood at Madison Square Garden (it's playing now) and the Woodstock soundtrack. Then later, when I was talking with my wife, it turns out she had just watched the director's cut of the Woodstock movie the night before! Scary, huh?

Things at work are settling down a little bit. Some decisions are being made but the politicking is still ongoing. I've got a pretty good idea of what my little group will be doing and it looks fine with me. Some other decisions, well, would've been a lot better had they gone a different way ...

Living on a military base can be a very different sensory experience. Several times today, I had Blackhawk helicopters flying in pairs directly over my head. Just now, as I was typing this, the guards at the gate were firing their 50-caliber. No, there's no attack, they do that periodically during their watches ... I suppose just to ensure that the thing still works. So I'll be walking between buildings and THUDTHUDTHUDTHUDTHUD from just beyond the wall at the end of the compound. It gets my attention, but gives me a good, secure feeling as well.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Strapped to an Unguided Rocket

That pretty much describes my feeling at work for the past couple of weeks. We're getting down to the wire on our transformation from one type of organization and mission to another. And we're still trying to define what the new organization(s) will be, and what their mission(s) will be. Meanwhile, the "execute" order is looming large. So I've been quite the Powerpoint Ranger lately, preparing briefings on things that may or may not come to pass, outlining options, writing memos and executive summaries, and never quite sure where it's all going. Just like being strapped to a rocket with no tail fins.

Our network problems are gradually getting resolved. After having three guys work on my computer, trying to find all my old emails, finally somebody came along that knew what he was doing. He found and restored them in about five minutes. He's my hero. The rest of the network stuff is still a problem, but gradually, slowly, getting resolved. There's another command that moved with us, though, and I hear that their problems are much worse than ours. They have their own IT guys, so I'm not going to worry too much about them.

We had a bit of an emergency over the past couple of days. One of our people had some medical symptoms that came on very suddenly and sounded serious. I got him over to the medical facility, who very quickly transferred him to a bigger one, and he's going home today. Looks like he may have some serious heart problems - and in going over his condition, I wonder, just how the hell did he get out here? After a triple bypass, five stints, diabetes, and being about 75 pounds overweight to boot? What clown screened him?

Yesterday a couple of us went over to the medical facility, where he'd spent the night, to pick him up. There were three Iraqi detainees in there, too. Two were older gents who were fairly quiet. The other was a younger boy who was asleep. All three were strapped down to their beds. Our guy said that the detainees kept throwing things at everybody in the ward all night long. Frankly, I was quite impressed with how our young American guards handled them - these kids were maybe 20 years old, very professional, and totally calm. Whenever one of the detainees did something (sometimes obviously just to get a reaction), the guards never flinched, never got excited, and responded respectfully. When I think back to when I was about 20, I don't know that I'd have had that maturity.

So now it's time to head back to work and get strapped to that unguided rocket again. Wonder what'll happen today.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Livin' at Victory

I'm settled into my new home at Victory Base. I've got my barracks room slummed out so it's comfortable and have my desk at work arranged just so ... meaning papers all over the place, a coffee cup that needs to be washed, half-empty bottle of water, and a chair set to just the right height. So all is well, no?

No. All my email files disappeared in the move. Four months worth of records just *poof* went away. The same thing happened with about half of the people I've talked to as well. Some of them had records that went back several years. At the old compound, we all used a shared drive. It was supposed to migrate into our new network. Well, something migrated, but what we have now is not what we had then. Looks like some things made it, some didn't, and file names and structures were randomly changed. So we can't find the things we need. And to further muck it up, it looks like all the files done between July 22 to Aug 18 were dumped. We're talking nearly a month's worth of work for over a hundred people, gone.

So the IT guys are not very popular right about now.

Life at Victory is very different than life in the IZ. There, we were in small compounds crammed into a city environment. We had lots of trees and paved streets and sidewalks. Didn't have to walk very far - the commute from my hooch to my desk was (by actual measurement) 1 minute 33 seconds. Being at Victory, though, is like being plopped down in the Arizona desert. It's flat, no trees, gravel roads and gravel walks. Dust everywhere. Everything is spread out, so we have 10-15 minute walks to get anywhere. The sun is brutal. I never had to wear my hat in the IZ, but it's always on my head here. And this past week has been hot. Most days have been 120 or above. It's like walking around in an oven and is enough to literally take your breath away. At least it does mine.

I don't have a short commute anymore. Our workplace is several miles from the barracks, so we have to ride our own special bus. It picks us up at 7 am and returns to the barracks at either 6, 7, or 9 pm. I'm not a fan of being tied to somebody else's schedule but don't have any say in the matter.

Seems like every place in Iraq is staffed with people from a different place in the world. At the Embassy, most of the guards were Peruvian, so I used my extremely limited Spanish with them. At our last compound, we had a lot of Iraqis, so I learned some Arabic. Here, we have a lot of Indians and Ugandans. So now I'm learning some Swahili. It's kinda cool, really.

I've had a hard time trying to post to this blog since arriving here. Our internet server in the barracks has been overloaded with all the new people coming in, and it crashes at about 8-9 pm most nights. Very frustrating. Last night I saw some of our IT guys helping to get it back up. That may be the kiss of death!

One last thought. Two days ago there were two huge truck bombs in Baghdad that destroyed the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Finance buildings and killed about a hundred people. The Foreign Ministry was adjacent to, but outside, the IZ. I hear that the concussion broke some windows in our old compound. So despite all my gripes, I'm glad to be away from the IZ and living here at Victory.

So that's my first impression of the first week and a half here at my new home. Hopefully, they'll fix our server and I'll be able to post a bit more often. Until then, siku njema! (Means "have a good day!")

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Few More Pictures

I haven't posted any pictures lately, so here are a few that magically appeared on my camera over the past couple of weeks.

"Prosperity" is the name of a base in the IZ. Among other things, it has a thriving batch of stores run by local Iraqis. Lots of stores have these "belly-dancing" outfits, but this is the first I've ever seen where it was displayed on a male mannikin!

Another part of Prosperity. Not all of Iraq is a desert - this area almost looks lush! Until you walk out in the dust and kick up a cloud of fine talcum powder ...

Most of the T-walls in Baghdad are coming down. Not all, though: some around Iraqi bases look like they're going to be permanent. Nobody likes plain gray concrete, so the Iraqis hire locals to decorate them.

In the last week or two at our old compound in the IZ, they closed down the laundry. When they got a batch of complaints, they installed two washers and dryers in the midst of our CHU's. If it looks to you like they're (a) outside, (b) uncovered, and (c) unlighted, well, you're very observant. We were just happy we didn't have a dust storm.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Get Your Move On

This has been a busy week. The big news: I'm no longer in the International Zone. My command has been moving for the past couple of weeks from our old home at Essayons Compound (across the street from Ibn Sina Hospital, for those of you who've been there) to our new location at Area 51 at Victory Base Compound (VBC), which is at the airport. I did the transition on Tuesday.

What this meant for me was that my computer at work was taken offline on Sunday and packed away on Monday. No computer, not a whole helluva lot to do. Break my heart, right? To pack up my desk at work took, oh, 15 minutes, since I was dawdling.

My hooch was another matter. Our internet capability died on Sunday and didn't come up until after I left. I got all my stuff packed up (where did all this crap come from, anyway??) and on Monday we loaded everything into our uni-packs. These are modular boxes, roughly four feet high/wide/long, into which we put all our worldly possessions. I got mine all loaded up and sealed, then went back to my room and lo and behold, realized that I forgot to pack away my sheets, pillows, and blanket. Robert had plenty of space, though, so that's where they went.

I just mentioned the amazing amount of crap that I found I had. Some of the people have been here for four or five years and really had a lot of stuff. One woman needed FIVE UNIPACKS. Yes. I kid you not. I don't know that you could fit five unipacks into a hooch at all, but she filled all of 'em up. She needed one whole unipack just for her shoes. (Remember: that's 4'x4'x4' of just shoes).

Anyway, our stuff got loaded into the conex box and put on a truck. We were loaded into our vehicles and off we went. And when we got here, we found out that the conex with all our stuff wasn't going to make it. Then it didn't make it the next day. Finally, yesterday, it arrived. Turned out that the Iraqi army, who's now guarding the IZ, had been stopping the trucks for all kinds of different reasons: tags, licenses, they wanted to inspect the containers, that sort of thing. Basically, they were flexing their muscles. So our Command Sergeant Major got on the line with some of his other Command Sergeant Major buddies around town and now our convoys of conex boxes have gun truck escorts. The Iraqi army doesn't mess with convoys that have gun truck escorts. It's really hard to shake down a bribe from somebody who has a 50-caliber machine gun.

So now I'm living in a barracks. It's a nice place. My room is quite a bit bigger than my old hooch (not that that's saying much). It's in a real building ... but since it's Iraqi-built, everything is a bit off. I don't care. I'm finally getting all my stuff put away and feeling that my nest is my new (temporary) home.

At work, well, the adventure continues. I'm now on a different network and somewhere in the transition between the old and new ones, all my email files disappeared. Word to the wise: when an IT guy tells you "Hey, no problem, it'll be transparent", never ever believe them! I learned that years ago and it still holds true. They believe they can recover all my emails. They also believe in Santa Claus.

So if you've been wondering where I've been, that's the story. I'm still here and will continue to post. And maybe, just maybe, I can find my old email files at work this afternoon ...

Sunday, August 09, 2009


I found out today that I won't be going on R&R in a week. This would've been my first trip home since April. The reason - well, it has to do with this command going through a transition in mission and organization, and a big drawdown in personnel, and the requirement for decisions to be made. Not that I'm the one making the decisions, but I have to provide input on a few key aspects, and I have to do some coordination with other organizations outside my command.

The fact that these decisions should've been made three to six months ago is what really pisses me off. And the fact that a certain division in our command, whose title includes the word "PLANS", hasn't done zip. So while the decision-makers and the "plans" division will go home soon, for good, and will probably get awards and praise for the wonderful work they did, some of us will have to stay here and do their work for them.

Yes, I'm PISSED.

There's more to the story, of course, but I don't need to go into that here. I'm not a happy camper. But this isn't the first time that this sort of thing has happened in my career. When you're in, or associated with, the military, shit happens. Plans change.

Way, way back when I was on my first ship in the Navy, we went in to work one morning and discovered we had 48 hours to get ready for an extended deployment to the Indian Ocean. The Shah of Iran had been deposed. A year later, we were back out there when the hostage rescue attempt failed. So I'm familiar with sudden changes of plans. But those were driven by events outside my own command. This isn't. I know who and what made it impossible for me to go. (Well, not impossible ... just extremely unwise ... not just from a personal standpoint, either).

So I'll sit here, stew, and get back to work tomorrow. Hey, shit happens. Get used to it.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Photography by Rob Amberg

My friend Rob Amberg is a photographer. That's like saying Bob Dylan writes songs. Rob focuses his most personal work on Madison County, in the mountains of North Carolina, along the Tennessee border. Now Madison County is about as rural as you can get. It's Appalachia with a capital A, pretty poor, with lots of outhouses still in use. But it's easy to miss the depth, vibrancy, and richness of the people who live there. Rob doesn't. He knows the people and their ways. Most importantly, he treats them with respect.

Rob has had 36 of his photos published in Big Bridge, which is an online poetry and arts magazine. Take a look. Take your time. You won't see a bunch of thumbnails from which to pick the two or three you want to look at - rather, you have to page through them, one at a time, by clicking on each photo. It's slow, like the pace of life in the mountains, and it's worth it.

I have a personal interest in Rob's work, besides admiring it immensely. Some of these photos were taken very close to my house. And I know one or two of the people who appear in this collection. Rob's photos do great justice to my home county.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Coming to a Milestone

My group of friends is about to break up. No, we're not at each other's throats, quite the contrary. It's the drawdown, the move, and the restructuring that's causing the changes. Two of our guys are leaving our headquarters unit and going out to work in the field. They're both energetic, ambitious, smart young guys, and they need to be out in the field doing military junior officer kinds of things, and not stuck in headquarters revising Powerpoint charts. Another guy is leaving - his 6-month tour is up and he's heading home. I'll be going on R&R in a couple of weeks, and when I come back, we'll be just about to put all our restructuring plans into place.

So tonight we celebrated. We went out to our secret DFAC that makes the killer hamburgers. We haven't been in a while because our movements have been very restricted. But tonight we finagled a vehicle and off we went. As always, the burgers were fabulous! After resting up for an hour, some of us went over to the gym at Liberty and pretended to work out. Difficult to do on a fully tummy.

Our move is well underway. Big parts of our buildings are empty - you could play basketball in some rooms, where a month ago they were jammed with desks and people. Yesterday, they shut down the laundry service, the self-serve laundry, and the gym. And the TV service, too, although that seems to have been quite by accident. Our Green Bean coffee shop will close its doors tomorrow. I, for one, will sorely miss it! Nothing like a fine cappuccino in the early afternoon to get you going again after lunch.

For me, the past week or so has been a wild ride, like being strapped to a rocket with no tail fins. I've been part of a group working on future plans for our organization. I had to prepare two decision briefs for the General and the Ambassador. As I was prepping them, the ground rules kept changing - first I had to prepare it with one set of assumptions, then the next day the assumptions were completely different. As we got down to the time for the Big Meeting yesterday afternoon, the pace of change became manic. But both my briefs seem to have been well received, although I don't have a clue what they've decided to do. During this time, I'd also wound up helping an officemate who had two very high-priority tasks and got way too far behind in one of them. His briefs turned out very well; again, we don't know what the final decisions will be. Supposedly, the decisions were made yesterday, but if they were, nobody's gotten around to telling us.

By contrast, today was slow. No pending meetings. No briefs to prepare. Just a few nitnoid questions to answer. A nice change. It won't stay that way, so we'll enjoy it while we can. Meanwhile, our shipmates are getting ready to depart, so we have other things on our minds.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Welcome Home, Scott

I just saw a news report that the remains of Scott Speicher, who's been missing since the first Gulf War in 1991, have been found. Speicher was a Navy Lieutenant, flying an F/A-18, when he was shot down on the opening day of the war over the desert in western Iraq. His plane and body were never found, although some parts of the plane were turned over to us in 1993. Speicher was listed as MIA and the Navy continued to carry him on the roles of active duty officers. Over the years, there were hints that he may have survived in captivity. However, that was not the case. Last week, Marines were led to a site by some Iraqis, where Speicher's remains were dug up.

So one of our own is coming home. Welcome back, shipmate. Now you can rest in peace.