Monday, September 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Janis

Today is my wife Janis's birthday. No, I won't say her age - I value my life. We had our first date 18 years ago this very day, when we went out for dinner and a movie. (Pretty original, huh?) She's celebrating it in some unique ways: having some of the windows on our house replaced and simultaneously wheeling and dealing on eBay. Our neighbors are going to have her over for grilled hamburgers later on tonight. Wish I could be there!

I made my first deployment back in the Dark Ages. It was 1978, to be precise, and I went with my first ship on an Indian Ocean cruise. The only way we had to communicate with home was with hand-written letters. They could/did take weeks to make it to their destination. Mail was a high-priority item for the deployed fleet. It would come from the APO in San Francisco, then flown out via whatever route they chose to Diego Garcia, then flown again up to the aircraft carrier we were with. The guys on the carrier would sort it into bags that would be picked up by the daily helicopter runs and dropped off at each individual ship. A couple of hours later, we'd hear those words "Mail Call!" over the 1MC (loudspeaker to you non-Navy folk).

It's quite different now. This screen shot was taken just a few minutes ago when I was having a video chat with Janis. Being able to see and talk to her nearly every day (at least when our internet is up and running) is really a godsend. And, if nothing else, there's email. It all makes this deployment so much more tolerable.

One thing hasn't changed. Mail can STILL take weeks to get here. Go figure.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Anna Laube

I discovered a really good musician not too long ago. Anna Laube is a singer/songwriter. She has a bluesy, folksy quality and a beautiful voice. Her songs are stories ... and as an artist whose paintings tell stories, I have an appreciation for that. She has some videos on YouTube, although my favorite song of hers, "Goodbye Blue Monday", isn't there. Still, she's good, and definitely worth a listen.

Oh, and if you're wondering, I've had a couple of halfway-decent days since my last post, so I'm not nearly as tired and grumpy now as I was then, thank God!

Friday, September 25, 2009

... and then there was one

My friend Joe left Iraq today on his way home. His deployment here is over and he's on his way back to the real Navy, where the water is salty, ships are gray, and men don't wear cammie pajama outfits to work. Joe's the last of our little Band of Buddies to leave. Everybody else has gone home or been transferred to other bases in-country. There was Robert, who's home now - he was our absent-minded professor, always taking pictures of things he shouldn't and getting away with it ... usually because he was never aware that he wasn't even supposed to have a camera there! There was "Air Force Joe", a really smart guy who kept a tight rein on his projects. He went home, too. There was Eric, a scary-smart Air Force captain who is (literally) an astronautical engineer, who is now in Fallujah to work on a sewer project (aren't you impressed with the way the Army decides where to put people?). And Cody, another scary-smart Air Force guy with a PhD in aeronautical engineering, who's running construction projects down south. And now it's just me, the retired-Navy-guy-turned-artist, still working away here in Baghdad. Bummer.

I'm heading home in two weeks for some R&R. I need it. I am tired. Been here almost six months now and have had a total of two days off, not counting our Friday half-days. For most of that time, I've been working on one crisis or another, trying to plan this project or that transformation plan. Even when a plan gets accepted, it can be undermined almost immediately by some minion with an axe to grind. It happened again just a couple of days ago, where we were being directed to provide information that we already provided weeks or months ago. Don't you guys read your frickin' mail? It's getting old and I'm "crisis'd out". Getting an attitude - cranky and "who gives a shit" at the same time. I need a BREAK!

So in two weeks, I'll go home. See the wife, play with the dogs ... or see the dogs and play with the wife. Visit with friends. Take a nap on the couch. Go to a restaurant and have a dinner that was cooked just for me. Drive my truck around and not have to go through checkpoints. Mow the yard. Spend some time in the studio.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Monday Musings

My friend Joe is going to leave us in a few days. Joe hates foo-foo, frilly, girly stuff. So, naturally, the women in the office teamed up to decorate his desk with as much pink, foo-foo, frilly stuff as they could find. I don't think you can find anything pink in the BX today ... it's all been dumped on Joe's desk.

Joe got a lot of going-away gifts. (Yes, we have a strange custom here ... we wait until somebody has already cleaned out their stuff and pared their belongings down to what can fit into an airplane carry-on, and then we give 'em lots of new stuff to take with them. Makes sense, no? No.) If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that burgers have a special place in the hearts of the Band of Buddies. So here's what I gave Joe:

Camp Hope Burger
Oil on canvas, 4"x5"

We had a big storm blow through here the other evening. I was driving back to the office when it hit. It was amazing - we had a "tan-out": the blowing dust was so thick that I could not see the sides of the road, and the only way I saw the vehicle ahead of me was because of his taillights. I completely missed the turn-in to my building (the turn-in is about the size of an entire Wal-Mart parking lot), but found the entrance to the back lot. The wind and dust was dying down, but then the rain hit. Wow. BIG drops - the kind that make an audible "blop" when they hit, only they were loaded down with all the dust in the air, so they were really mud drops. I, of course, had my white shirt on. It became a white-and-brown-polka-dot shirt. Fortunately, I got it in the washing machine a little later and it cleaned up okay.

The wind, though, evidently played havoc with communications systems all over the place. Our internet in our rooms was knocked out and has been up intermittently since then. It's been bad at work, too - our satellite antenna got blown all over the roof and it took our IT guys a couple of days to get our system back up to a somewhat-unacceptable level. All this right at the end of the fiscal year, too. Our cost and budget people are about to go postal.

Last week, I wrote a post about our support contractors being sent home. The ones who are leaving have all left now. Yes, they can be sent home that quickly. Fortunately for us, some of them will be doing more or less the same jobs from back in the States. The difficulties we face are the 7 or 8 hour time difference, the fact that they're only working 40 hours a week instead of the 65+ that we are, and they're off on Saturdays and Sundays, which are regular workdays here. But at least we have some support. The reason for all this? Money. We don't have as many projects underway anymore, so we don't need as many people helping us. Even for those who are still needed, there is a big cost savings to moving them back. It costs an obscene amount of money to have an engineering and management support contractor in-country, but the same person working in the States only costs a ridiculous sum. And the difference between an obscene amount and a ridiculous amount is quite significant. Sometimes I think I'm on the wrong side of the business. But then, I still have a job, and most of them don't ... hello, unemployment line!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thursday Thoughts

We continue to have internet problems here in our barracks. Apparently, our influx of new residents has overloaded their antique server. So for four of the past five nights, our internet has crashed hard. I've been very frustrated. Living in a war zone is such a bitch!

I discovered this new brand of potato chips in our DFAC. The name says it all. Well, no, it doesn't.

Yesterday was a big day for those of us who are Navy. It was the Chiefs' promotion. Unlike the other services, when an enlisted sailor is promoted to E7, he or she enters into a whole new realm of responsibility. The Navy Chiefs are a special community - they are expected to be leaders of their sailors, trainers of junior officers, and advisors to more senior officers. They even wear a different uniform than junior sailors. Well, except here in Iraq, where they have to wear the ACU's or DCU's (meaning the pajama uniforms like all the other services). And unlike all the other services, all Navy Chiefs go through a rigorous training and indoctrination period together and are all promoted on the same day. Together. Yesterday was that day. Twenty seven sailors were promoted to Chief in a beautiful and moving ceremony at Al Faw Palace.

The Chiefs marched in as a unit singing "Anchors Aweigh" - and very well, too! After the National Anthem was sung a cappella by a Navy Chief, and Rear Admiral Morneau provided some very poignant remarks, the Chiefs were "pinned and covered" - meaning their anchors were pinned on their collars and their new cover with the Chief's insignia was placed on their heads.

Making Chief is not easy. It's a major step in a sailor's career. And this young lady, a newly-minted Chief, had tears streaming down her face. She wasn't the only one.

Congratulations to all our new Navy Chief Petty Officers! You all still make me proud to be part of your company.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Black Monday

Our drawdown is gaining steam. Today, most of our support contractors were notified that their services will no longer be required and that they'll soon be sent home. Some will leave in as soon as two days, while others will be here for two or, at most, three weeks.

I don't know quite how to make the impact of this event clear to you. Many of these people have been here for two, three, or more years. Some arrived in the summer of 2003, when the war was still fresh in everybody's memory. These people have seen our presence ramp up, they lived through the insurgency, they survived mortar and rocket attacks, and all the while they built bridges and water treatment plants, schools and electrical substations, clinics and oil pipelines, and literally thousands of other projects. Their corporate memory is phenomenal. But now we're drawing down, with only a couple hundred projects still ongoing and very few left to start. Fewer projects means fewer people to monitor and manage them. So all these people with all this experience are going home.

Their work is going to fall mostly on those of us who are employed by the government, whether civilian or military. It's going to be very difficult for me, personally, I am certain of that. I've only been in-country a year, and working for the Corps for five months, so my corporate memory is pretty small. (My wife says that all my memory is pretty small ... and I won't argue that point!) So I'm going to be back on the steep side of the learning curve again, probably starting tomorrow. Damn, and I was just getting to the point where I thought I knew what I was doing!

A friend of mine from the Embassy visited us today. He and I had a good time catching up on the news ("hey, didja hear about ol' (fill in a name here)?") Later, I took him over to Flintstone Village. I visited it back in May and wrote about it here. I saw a few interesting changes. Most notably, a local Boy Scout troop came in and painted over the graffiti in some areas. Here's what one room looked like in May:

And here's what it looks like now:

Quite a difference! The marks you see here are not graffiti. The Scouts have painted the walls with prints of their own hands, flowers, and birds. Here's another section of wall in the same room:

Of course, some other bozos have already started tagging the freshly-cleaned walls. Let's hope they get sent home soon, before they can do any more damage.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Wednesday Update

I've been wanting to post an entry for the past couple of days, but our internet in the rooms has been down in the evenings. Our net here is better than it was in the IZ. It's faster and they don't have those ridiculous filters, the ones that blocked me from updating or even accessing my own web site. However, now that my command has settled in to the barracks, we've overloaded their system. So it runs fine until all of a sudden it crashes. And that's the end of your access until the next day. Come to think of it, I better get busy ... it's just after 8 pm and it's about lights-out time for our Net.

So I finally got around to taking a few pictures and thought you might be interested in seeing a little bit of my world. Then again, maybe not. But here they are, anyway.

This is my room. As barracks rooms in Iraq go, this is top-flight. It's in a real building, with real furniture and a real bed. But you have to remember, this is a real Iraqi building ... meaning nothing is quite straight or flat, there's no ventilation (see that a/c unit on the wall? It just recirculates the same stale air). But after living in a shipping container that leaked dust, this is the Ritz.
Of course, being an artist, I have to have a place to paint. Here's mine. I've got an easel on order right now, which will be a huge improvement. Remember what I just said about the lack of ventilation? Well, that means that the fumes from the Iraqi paint thinner don't go anywhere. They stay right here, even when I leave the door open. I put in a few hours worth of painting the other day and felt like I had hangover the next morning. Ugh! I learned later that our windows really do open, so I'll have 'em wide open next time I paint. (And for you artists out there: I haven't found a local source for a decent solvent, so I gotta use paint thinner from the local economy ... and it's the nastiest stuff on earth. All I know for sure is that it's petroleum based - nothing else could stink like that.) On the brighter side, the paint thinner smell is gone now, leaving just the lingering fragrance of the paint's linseed oil, which to me is wonderful ... but then, I am an artist.

And here's a shot of my desk and our workspace. Looks like a bunch of cubes in a monster industrial building, doesn't it? That's because it is a bunch of cubes in a monster industrial building. It was originally one of Saddam's mints ... maybe the one where he made all that counterfeit American money. It's much roomier than our old digs in the International Zone, for which I'm grateful.

I've written several times about our reorganization and transformation flail. My part is done (at least for the moment) and it has reached critical mass up at the high levels where the decisions have to be made ... and should have been made months ago. I've got an idea of what will happen with me, but it could all change in an instant. For now, we sit and wait. We're scheduled to shift to our new organizational structure next week. It would be nice to know what that structure might be, before we do the switch!

Friday, September 04, 2009

An Anniversary

Today is an anniversary for me. One year ago today, I first stepped off the plane at Baghdad International Airport. I was nervous, excited, worn out from the trip, unsure of what to expect, and ready to go do something. All I knew for certain was that it would be an interesting time here. A year later, and that last part has certainly been true. I've worked for the State Department and now the Corps of Engineers. I've made a gazillion PowerPoint briefs, written information and decision memos, researched data, participated in way too many meetings, made some great friends, organized this and oversaw that, become an expert in the afternoon on things I didn't even know existed that morning, been under guard in the Red Zone and wandered freely in the Green Zone, and have not regretted a single moment of it. (Well, maybe some of the meetings).

Whenever I go home, people ask me, "What's Iraq like?". I don't know how to answer that. It's hot. It sucks. It's great. Wonderful people. Terrorists. A different way of life. Like being in a minimum-security prison. You can make an impact. You can't make a dime's worth of difference. You're valued. You're treated like shit. No time for yourself. Great pay. Not worth it.

Iraq is a maze of contradictions. When people ask me what Iraq's like, they're looking for a sound-bite insight into something that would take a thousand "War and Peace"-size tomes to even begin to understand. Like the blind men and the elephant, this blog has been my attempt to explain my little bitty piece of the puzzle.

Had I stuck with my original plan, I'd be going home for good right about now. But I changed course back in January, left the State Department in March, and came back on a one-year tour in April for the Corps. So I still have about seven months to go.

There has been a monumental change in Iraq in my twelve months here. Last year, we were in charge. We did what we wanted, we owned the streets, and only coordinated with the Iraqis when we needed to. Now the Iraqis are in charge and flexing their muscles. They don't do things nearly the way we would, and they don't want our help (at least, they don't want to be seen as wanting our help). We're pretty much confined to our bases now. Our convoys roll at night, every night, hauling equipment to Kuwait or Jordan as part of the drawdown and bringing back food and fuel and other supplies for the thousands of us still here. Last year, we were still planning on being here for a long time. Now, we're working on drawing down as fast as we can. Officially, all the military will be out by December 2011. Sounds like a long time, but it really isn't. Unofficially, there's an election coming up in January in which the Iraqis will vote yay or nay on the Security Agreement. If they vote "nay", as they most probably will, then we have to be out of here in January, 2011, which cuts our drawdown time in half.

But for now, I'm just trying to get done what I can get done in my remaining seven months. There's a lot to do. It looks like I'm going to be in charge of two really cool programs, and I'm excited about that. Instead of doing PowerPoints for the high mucky-mucks, I'll be doing things that will affect Iraq and Iraqis for potentially years to come.

But the main thing, for me, has been the people. There are all kinds here. Young American soldiers. Old grannies and grandpops (me included). Ugandan, Peruvian, Iraqi, British, and Gurkha guards. Sikhs, Kenyans, Malaysians, and Australians. The other night, I wound up sitting with a guy from the shop where they repair MRAPs and HummVees. Had a great time talking with him for an hour. This morning, I discovered an Army buddy had been promoted to Major. At our compound in the International Zone, we had a small Band of Buddies, made up of Army, Navy, Air Force, and civilians (me). Now we're all scattered to various other commands, or home, except for the Navy Commander and me, and in a few weeks, it'll just be me. Not to worry: there will be new group of friends formed in short order.

But one thing about being in Iraq is that sometimes your friends don't come back. I lost two good friends on Memorial Day in Fallujah. Terry Barnich and Maged Hussein were two of the smartest, nicest guys I've ever met. I'm not just saying that - these guys were brilliant in their fields, dedicated to the mission, and absolute gentlemen.

Terry is now buried near Chicago and a friend sent me this picture yesterday. Terry and Maged, we still miss you guys.

So. Twelve months down and seven to go. Has it been worth it?