Thursday, November 26, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving to one and all! I hope you have a wonderful holiday. I got to sleep in this morning, a very rare treat. Then a group of us went on a "One Lap of VBC" sightseeing tour. We treated ourselves to some cappuccino and a little Cinnabon, paid homage to SFC Smith, who earned a Medal of Honor in a small courtyard near my old building, and visited Flintstone Village again. A few months ago, a group of soldiers worked with the Iraqi Boy Scouts and Girl Guides to paint over the graffiti in several of the rooms, but the graffiti is back in spades. We finished up with lunch at Sather Air Force Base, which is part of the Victory Base complex. In typical fashion, the Air Force has the best DFAC on the entire complex, at least in my opinion. I just went for a jog, and will do some painting here in a few minutes. This evening, the command is going to have a lamb roast outside. Should be a lot of fun.

Now I want you to give yourself a quiet Thanksgiving treat. Watch this video of an incredibly beautiful piece of music. The composition is "Il Silenzio", written by the Italian trumpet player Nini Rosso in 1965, based on "Taps". This particular performance took place in August, 2008, in Maastricht, the Netherlands. The trumpet player is Melissa Venema, who was 13 years old at the time. I never knew a trumpet could be so beautiful.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Bit of This and That

Things have settled down with me now. My little dog Soozee has responded very well to her medications and you would never know that a week and a half ago she nearly died. Her appetite is back, she's going on her walks every morning and evening (a full mile each time), and she's rambunctious around the house. One side effect of the steroid medication is that she has suddenly taken a great interest in humping her sister, Indy. And Indy has gotten sick of it. (Indy has also conveniently forgotten that, when she was first on the same meds 20 months ago, she did the same thing). So Soozee looks like she's going to continue to be a healthy, happy dog.

While Soozee's crisis was going on, life here in Baghdad continued. We're definitely getting into winter now. The temperatures have dropped, with highs in the 50's or low 60's. Definitely jacket weather. It's the rainy season, too, which is no fun at all. When it rains, everything turns to mud. It's a slippery, sticky mud. Most of it is pretty shallow, maybe an inch deep, with hard-packed dirt underneath and this slippery goop on top. The only shoes to wear in this mess are Army boots. You need something high-rise with deep chunky treads on the bottom, and Army boots are it.

This is the DFAC parking lot. Imagine having to shlep through this every time you wanted to go eat. And imagine having to walk a half mile along a busy, muddy road before getting to this parking lot. And then having to walk back. Sounds like fun, huh? It does? You're sick. We carpool.
And here's a typical Victory Base drive in the rain. This road may or may not be paved. Doesn't matter, it's got an inch of slippery mud on top regardless, plus big ol' puddles and potholes and ditches scattered randomly around.
I've made an interesting discovery about the military postal system. I've got a subscription to Time magazine, but over the past two months, I've only gotten about a third of them. Who knows where the rest go. But you know what does make it to me? Their renewal notices. Haven't missed a one.
We have the most complicated timesheets to fill out that I've ever seen. When I was in the Navy, of course, we didn't do it at all, but in the civilian world, you have to account for every minute. I don't know about you, but just filling out a basic timesheet makes me feel like I'm working at McDonald's as a shift worker. In my current job, it's even more complicated, because I have to account for the time spent on different projects so that my time can be billed against them. Very much like a lawyer's "billable hours", only lawyers aren't as high on the status ladder as McDonald's shift workers. But somebody here has a sense of humor. Our timesheets are called "Time and Attendance" reports, or T&A forms, for short. 'Nuff said.
Our internet has been really bad in the rooms lately. I keep hearing rumors that they're going to upgrade the servers and fix all the problems, but we'll see. We've been having issues in getting our computers, which we brought with us from our old office, to work with the systems here in this new office. Ever notice how IT techs always seem to hold all other IT techs in contempt? A typical conversation:
Me: "Well, the tech came by and said he saved the pst file to my hard drive."
Tech: (snort) "Who was it?"
Me: "Joe."
Tech: (eyes roll, disgusted tone in voice) "Oh, well, that explains it. WE do it the right way, those guys don't know what they're doing." And he proceeds to spend 10 minutes changing files around on my computer. He leaves, I reboot, and now my email doesn't work at all. It's Joe's fault, of course.
The Armed Forces Network shows news programs from all the reputable networks, plus Fox. I've noticed that CNN puts up the BREAKING NEWS banner at random intervals. Now BREAKING NEWS to me means that something big is happening, like Nancy Pelosi just got caught in bed with Rush Limbaugh. But no, evidently CNN thinks BREAKING NEWS applies to an Anderson Cooper interview with a B-list movie actor I never heard of. Most annoying - I get all excited thinking something important is going on, and it's just Anderson. Again.
Fox seems to have a policy that 75% of its anchors and reporters must be blonde babes. I don't complain too much, as long as the volume is turned off. But they have this need to justify the blonde babe's existence on the screen, besides just being eye candy, so they'll say something like "Jane Doe, PhD". Well, I can put a lot of letters behind my name, and as my wife will tell you, that doesn't mean squat. Why don't they just be honest? "Jane Doe, Hot Chick".
And that's the way it is, Tuesday, November 24th. Good night.

- Skip Rohde, CDR, USN (RET), CD PgM, BSME, MBA, BFA, SoB

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Iraq Reconstruction

The New York Times has an excellent article today on reconstruction in Iraq. The article says that US officials fear that Iraqis will not maintain what we've built for them over the past six years with $53B. It goes on to cite several projects, including a $270M water treatment plant in Nasariyah, several hospitals including the Basrah Children's Hospital, and the Fallujah waste water treatment plant, among others. I highly recommend the article - well-written and pretty accurate. A friend of mine sent me a note about it today. I sent him a bit of a long response and decided that I'd post it here as well.

John -
I saw this article this morning. It is pretty accurate. I'm familiar with the Nasariyah water treatment plant. It was the single most expensive project we've done here. Within months of turning it over to them, it was running at 35% capacity. The reason is that the local government down there is run like a bunch of Tony Sopranos - they give the jobs to family and tribal members, not to engineers who know what they're doing. We (the US) went back in and spent a lotta money to fix it back up again. Haven't heard anything since we finished, but what do you want to bet that it's falling apart again?

Yes, we built a lot of Public Health Centers that were immediately shuttered because they didn't have the staff to run them. Most were connected to the power grid, water lines, and sewer lines, but there was an early agreement with the Ministry of Health that we'd only go so far outside the PHC to do the connections, and after that it was the Ministry's responsibility. To my knowledge, they never made any of those connections. Some PHC's have been repaired and opened (all of those with good results so far), some were never opened, some have probably been stripped, and some are probably being used for other purposes. Or various combinations of the above.

Because of the issues with project turnover, we started requiring Letters of Sustainment to be signed by the ministries or local officials before we'd start work. Basically, it says that they want the project and will take care of it once it's done. Probably not worth the paper it's printed on, but at least it makes them address how they're going to support the project.

The Basrah Children's Hospital is still a major issue. We turned over ownership back in February (I'm the one who put together the signing ceremony for the Ambassador and the Minister ... wrote about it in my blog). To my knowledge, the Ministry still has not budgeted a dime for support. At a lot of government agencies, the people working there are not getting paid, so Dr. Ahmed at the Basrah Children's Hospital (have been in several meetings with him) may very well have not been paid for months, if ever.

The NYT article is incorrect about the Fallujah project. It is not yet completed. My command is in charge of that project and right before I went on R&R, I was working on the way forward with it. This is something that should never have been built. It's Boeing 747 technology in a place that can't support a Piper Cub. But there it is. Two friends of mine were killed on a visit to this project on Memorial Day. I can't tell you if it will be completed by us - there are some serious issues that a lot of people are working their way through on the other side of this cubicle right now, but I can tell you that we are doing everything we possibly can to finish it and leave an operating system in that town.

Iraq is still facing a serious shortage of educated and trained people. That's why I'm so excited about the projects I'm working on. They're all designed to help the Iraqis take steps forward themselves: some are training programs to do things like run the PHC's and hospitals and schools. One is to bring a university's engineering curriculum up to western accreditation standards. Two are to develop master plans in places that badly need them - and to train the Iraqis in how to do planning, and how to implement the plans once they're done.

Will it answer all their problems? No, but it will answer some, and provide them with some tools to take the next steps themselves. They're so much to be done that, as this article indirectly noted, you can do $53 BILLION dollars' worth of work and people still think you didn't do anything. But we did - for example, just go visit Sadr City (umm, on second thought, don't) and you'll find several hundred thousand people who now have reasonably clean running water. Or towns where they now have a solidly built school instead of (literally) a mud hut.

Yeah, there was a lot of waste, but the great majority of projects were done and are being used. Just remember that journalists tend to overstate the negative and sensational because they wouldn't have a job otherwise.

Glad you saw this article.

All the best,

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Soozee's Status Update

Our vet confirmed today that Soozee has Addison's disease. We were 95% sure that's what nearly killed her the other day, and now we know and can move forward with treatment. Addison's is never cured: with this condition, the adrenal glands just quit working and never start up again. But, as we have experienced for the past 20 months with her sister Indy, Addison's can be treated. Indy gets a cortisol shot every four weeks and takes Prednisone every day, and once we got her dosage levels figured out, she has been perfectly healthy. Soozee will probably follow almost the same regimen.

The reports from Soozee's RN (Janis) have been very positive over the past few days. Soozee is at home and resting comfortably most of the day. Her spirits are up and she is beginning to eat and drink on her own again. She's still very tired, but then, if you were in critical condition and on life support on Friday, you probably wouldn't be a bundle of energy, either. She finally had a nice poop on her own this morning, but you probably didn't need that level of detail.

Thanks to all who called and sent us notes of support. They were more important than you know. And many thanks to Jennifer and Darryl, our next-door neighbors, who jumped in and helped Janis out. And, as I said last time, Dr. Ryan Hammond at the Animal Hospital of Reems Creek was the one who pulled Soozee back from over the brink and saved her life.

I consider myself very blessed - I have two of the sweetest dogs in the world (who are both alive today because of Dr. Hammond), a wonderful wife who kept her head during this crisis, and friends and family who provided us with support. You can't ask for much more than that.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Very Bad Scare

Yesterday, we very nearly lost the sweetest little dog in the world. Soozee has been sick since Tuesday, not eating anything, throwing up occasionally, and having less and less energy. Janis took her into the vet on Thursday. The vet thought that she may have pancreatitis. She was certainly dehydrated, so they gave her a subcutaneous injection that seemed to revive her. He also took some blood tests, but they wouldn't be back until the next day. Janis took Soozee home and kept an eye on her. Mostly, Soozee just slept.

Friday morning, she wouldn't, couldn't, move and lost control of her bowels. Janis took her in to the vet right as they opened, and as soon as they saw Soozee, they went into gear. Soozee was dehydrated again, her heart rate was very low, blood sugar was very low, her blood pressure was so low they couldn't get an IV into her, and her temperature was ten degrees below normal. The poor little dog's systems were shutting down and she was literally at death's door.

The vet gave her a shot of dextrose to get her blood sugar up and a shot of cortisone to get her system going again. She stabilized and then, slowly, started to come back. It took six hours for her blood pressure to come up enough for them to finally get an IV into her. A little later, Janis was able to see her and got a weak tail wag in response. By evening, she was looking better. Weak, but better.

Soozee spent last night in REACH, the emergency animal hospital in Asheville, still with an IV in her. By today, she was much better, jumping and licking Janis when she arrived, and very happy to see her sister Indy. She still won't eat anything, but I think that's because she's in a strange place and they want her to eat strange food from a strange bowl. Soozee is a piglet, but she's a very particular piglet. At this moment, she is still under observation at REACH, but may be able to go home soon.

We think that Soozee has Addison's disease. Her sister, Indy, came down with it in March '08 (see my entries here, here, and here). Addison's is not really a disease, it's a condition in which the adrenal glands quit working. Forever. It is deadly if not caught in time. We caught Indy's in time ... I thought her case was a close call, but then we damn near lost Soozee yesterday. But although Addison's can't be cured, it can be treated. Indy is on a regimen of a shot at the vet's every 26 days, plus half a prednisone pill every morning and evening. Once we finally found the right dosage, Indy's body chemistry settled down and she's been her normal self since then. The vet will give Soozee a specific test on Monday for Addison's, but since it's hereditary and Indy already has it, and the symptoms are much the same, we're pretty certain Soozee has Addison's, too.

Janis handled everything like a trooper. She was an emotional wreck but was still able to think things through and do what needed to be done. Me, I was a basket case. I was stuck here in Iraq, seven thousand miles away, and unable to do a thing to help. I've often said that if anything ever happened to one of my dogs, they'd have to put me down. Well, they almost had to last night. I was worried sick, shaking, unable to talk to anybody without breaking down. After all, this was my little girl who might die at any moment. It's an awful, gut-wrenching, unbearable feeling.

But she came through. She came through thanks to Dr. Ryan Hammond at the Animal Hospital of Reems Creek. This is the second time he's saved one of our dogs for us. The staff at REACH kept that momentum going. These are good doctors, good people, and I owe them.

I am not a religious kind of guy, but last night, I thanked God from the depths of my soul that He let my little girl live.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Just Stuff

I finally hit the gym last night. Between going home on R&R, and then having a cold, it's been a month since I last pushed some weights around. So I eased off some on both the weights and the reps. Good thing, too, because I'm sore today. Thighs are sore, abs are sore, chest is sore, arms are sore. Must've been a good workout!

Work is going pretty well. As I mentioned, I've got six big projects that I'm in charge of. Two of them have recently been started and the people we're doing them for are hounding me every day, asking about what's going on, and what's going to go on, and when, and why we aren't further along than we are, and they're going to sic their generals on us if they don't like what we're doing. And I'm thinking, dude, I've only had this job for two weeks, what the hell do you want?

The other four projects are still being developed so that I can get them onto a contract. I've never put a package together for a contract before, so I'm still on the steep side of the learning curve. And a couple of these projects are hideously complex, never-been-done-in-Iraq types of things that are confounding even our contracting experts. And, of course, the people we're doing them for are hounding me for progress reports. At least they're not threatening to sic their generals on me. Yet.

Still, I'm having a good time. These are very worthwhile projects and I'm just as qualified (or unqualified, depending on your viewpoint) to run them as anybody else is. My new bosses are very understanding and supportive, which is wonderful, and are letting me do the job however I think it needs to be done. So work is going well.

Way, way back when, I read the book All I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum. It's a remarkable book. Robert has a knack for finding deep meanings in the simple, everyday experiences of life, and then writing about them in a way that expresses his fundamental joy in life. My sister pointed me toward his blog some time ago. Go take a look, you might enjoy it.

I finally got some mail today. It's been six weeks since anything arrived through the postal service. Back in September, we were given our new mailing address, and I dutifully sent it out to my magazines and family and friends. After I arrived here, I found out that they gave us the wrong one. Nothing like quality support from your command, huh? Fortunately, all those guys are now back in the States where they can't do any more damage here.

So now I have a newly opened back of Nature Valley Granola Nut Clusters that's sitting here on my desk, fresh from a box that arrived today. I better put it away before I eat the whole thing and undo all the benefits of yesterday's trip to the gym.

Friday, November 06, 2009

New Drawing

Ruined Guard Tower, Victory Base
Pencil on paper, 9"x12"

This afternoon was my weekend, all 5 hours of it. It was a beautiful day, absolutely perfect, clear skies, mid-70's. I took my iPod and a magazine outside and vegg'ed for a while. Later, I went out to sketch this guard tower. I've had my eye on it for several months - it's a perfect subject for a drawing or painting. So here's the drawing, but the painting may take a while.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Return to the Grind ... but it's a new grind ...

I've been down for the past week with a cold. Picked it up while at home on R&R, evidently, and it finally took off after I came back here. The medical center reassured my hypochondriac self that I didn't have pneumonia again (have had it three times in my life, no fun) and that I wasn't going to die anytime soon - at least, not from a cold. So they gave me lots of good drugs that made my sinuses drier than the Mojave Desert. Yesterday, my body told me that the virus was officially dead, so now I'm just getting over the residual symptoms.

As a result, I hit the treadmill tonight after work. It whipped my butt, but sure felt good to get moving again. Tomorrow: weight room.

I'm much happier at work these days. My little group of people has transferred into the Gulf Region District, so we have a new set of bosses who are still learning what we're all about, but they're very supportive. Most importantly, my job has completely changed. I was working on organizational issues and creating PowerPoint briefings for high mucky-mucks who didn't understand what we were telling them and didn't seem to care. Not a lot of job satisfaction there. Now, I'm running six programs with budgets of many millions of your taxpayer dollars. All of them are designed to help Iraqi provincial officials and people run their own country in a more effective manner. A chance like this is the reason I volunteered to come here, and I'm going to give all of these projects my best shot. It's a really tremendous opportunity.

In addition to the job being so good, life in our new location is better. I moved into our new office this past week. It's on the same compound where my barracks room is. So instead of having to take the special bus in to work, and being tied to the bus schedule, I now have a commute of (by actual measurement) 2 minutes 30 seconds from my room to my desk. Pretty cool. Okay, so it's about 45 minutes if you include the trip to the DFAC for breakfast, lunch, or dinner (10 minute walk each way down a dusty road heavily travelled by MRAPs, semi-trucks, Strykers, John Deere gators, and every variety of SUV and pickup in the world). The air in our office building seems to be much healthier than the old building, too. My eyes aren't bothering me like they did.

And if all this wasn't good news enough, this past week we won a painting from a dear friend of ours in a raffle. The artist is Genie Maples. Her studio is just down the hall from mine, and she paints wonderful, powerful abstracts. This one is particularly strong - you can read about it in her blog. Suffice it to say, it's about a lot more than you think.

So the next six months look like they're going to be an exciting time. Work is fun again!