Monday, March 29, 2010

Life in the Mud Pit

Rain. We've had three days of rain. It's clear today, which is good, but the rain means that it's muddy again. I'm hoping that maybe this'll be the last bout with rain and mud that I have to deal with before heading home.

"Heading home": what a wonderful concept! I've been deployed for 18 months and have one more to go. It's looking better and better. I'm already starting to look around my room at things, thinking "okay, that's going in my shipment home, this is going in my giveaway pile, that's going in the throw-away pile ..." Very cool!

What is NOT cool is that I'm on Day 8 of a bout with an intestinal virus. Just when I think it's going away, it comes back with a vengeance. Yesterday, I went over to sick call to have it checked out. They don't know what this bug is, either, but are doing some tests to try to figure it out. (Hint: I am really really glad that I'm not the one to have to do those tests!) The virus came from eating at a new sandwich shop run by locals on the base. The docs said that I was not the first one who had problems after eating there, either. Surprisingly, they said the food joints causing the most trouble were the Taco Bell, Burger King, and the Mediterranean restaurant. Just because it says "Taco Bell" here doesn't mean it meets US health standards. So if you're here at Victory Base, or know somebody at Victory, tell 'em to stick with the DFACs.

The LA Times has an interesting article about Iraqi immigrants living in El Cajon, California. El Cajon is just east of San Diego. Most of the Iraqis that I work with seem to want to go to the States, thinking that we live in a paradise. Well, compared to Iraq, we do. But coming to the US as an immigrant is much harder than it appears, as immigrants for 400 years have been finding out. Trying to establish yourself during a recession is worse.

Somebody from Japan keeps trying to leave comments on this blog. Unfortunately, they come across in kanji characters. I'll be happy to post the comments if they're in English.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Bit of This 'n' That

Things have been moving along their own unpredictable path since my last post. (Actually, since long before my last post, but I had to have some sort of lead-in line, didn't I?) We have some rather large organizational changes that are supposed to happen on April 1st. That's one week away, and you would think that we would know what those changes would be by now. You would be wrong. We are probably sending a lot of our contractors home by then, but maybe not. A large part of my branch's mission might shift to another organization on base. Or maybe back to a group in the States. Or maybe it won't be done at all. Or maybe we'll continue to do it after all. My guess is that they might get around to making a decision, oh, late on the 31st. Or maybe not.

So what do we do, when faced with organizational indecision? Compare notes, share the latest rumor (which will be completely contradicted by the next rumor), and continue to plug away.

Long time readers (all 3 of you) may remember that we went through a similar drill last August and September. It was not fun. I spent my days madly writing and re-writing PowerPoint briefs to educate the decision-makers on requirements, options, and recommendations. Most of that input was ignored. This time, at least, I've not been involved in those discussions at all. Which is fine with me: those who are making the decisions will have to live with the consequences. They've been clearly told what those consequences will be, but I guess they don't believe it. What can you do?

Last Sunday, a few of us went to a new sandwich place here on base. It's run by Iraqis and had just opened up. I had a really delicious sandwich, but it gave me a stomach virus that has, shall we say, left me a few pounds lighter than normal. Quick: where's that scale? Maybe the dreaded DFAC isn't so bad after all!

The weather here is gradually warming and drying. We've had a cool spell, with temperatures in the 70's. At least it's been dry. But now we're looking at some rain and even cooler temperatures over the next three days. Aack! Rain means at least five days of mud. I can do without that ... but it ain't my choice, is it?

I saw an article last night about a Sikh who was just commissioned as an Army dentist. Very cool! Sikhism is a monotheistic religion from the Punjab region of northern India. It isn't Muslim nor Hindu, it's completely different. For the past 26 years or so, no Sikhs have been accepted into the services because, for religious reasons, they do not shave nor cut their hair, and they wear turbans. Finally, the Army has gone out on a limb and accepted two Sikhs into their ranks as doctors. I think this is a very positive step and wish these two men, and the Army, all the best in the world.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Shrine Down The Hall

The New York Times has a beautiful photo essay about the cost of war. Titled The Shrine Down The Hall, it looks at the untouched bedrooms of soldiers who did not come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Go see it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Memorial Service

We had a very moving memorial service today for one of our security force people. Robbie was a young Brit who spent 15 years in the Royal Marines. He was an accomplished triathlete, very sharp, a "by the book" team leader. He was also a husband and a father to three young children, one of whom he helped bring into the world just a few weeks ago. Robbie was killed last week by a roadside bomb while on a mission to a project site.

Unfortunately, his is not the only hit that our security forces have taken recently while at, or en route to, project sites. A week prior to Robbie's death, a member of a different team to the north was killed by a sniper. A few days ago, two security guys lost their legs to another roadside bomb.

That spate of incidents is extremely unusual. It's not uncommon now for us to go for weeks with little activity, and there have been surprisingly few injuries or deaths over the past year or so. It's easy to forget that we're still in a war zone. We have a Burger King and a Cinnabon on the base, and there are salsa dance classes, yoga, and college classes. The national and international newspapers only talk about the ongoing election process, which is a bit of a zoo. I don't recall seeing anything more than a brief one-liner about any of our forces being hurt or killed, and never anything about a US civilian, and especially never anything about contractors. If your only exposure to what's happening on the ground in Iraq is the media, you'd think that we're sitting here on our bases, twiddling our thumbs, waiting to go home.

But traveling around Iraq is still dangerous. The number of bombs and mortar attacks and so forth is way down, but not eliminated, and there are a few trouble areas where shitty things happen a bit more often. All three incidents that I mentioned were in these trouble areas. Our security guys, Robbie included, knew the dangers and the risks and willingly took them.

Why? Well, that's a good question. A skeptic might say it's for the money or the adrenaline rush. That might come into play for some people. Everybody has a lot of reasons why they're here. Most of the military members are ordered here; some volunteer. All the civilians and contractors are here because we volunteered. Money is probably part of the reason; career advancement may be another. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I think most of us are here primarily for other reasons: the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than ourselves, to participate in something vitally important, to do something that not many other people can do or are willing to do. I think that's especially true for those who put their lives on the line and go outside the wire on a regular basis.

I didn't know Robbie, but I heard about him from his buddies. Robbie was a level-headed, very dedicated guy. You have to be to survive 15 years in the Royal Marines, and Rambos don't last long in the real world. So as a level-headed guy, Robbie certainly wasn't here just for the money. He was here for something else, bigger than him. And he accepted the risks.

When I first arrived, I wanted to get off the bases as much as possible. I've been lucky enough to have made some trips around the country. But I've also gained an appreciation for what it takes to do those trips, and especially for the security forces that take me where I need to go. Every one of those men and women has been extremely professional. I owe it to them to make sure that my trips are absolutely necessary.

On the other hand, our very business requires us to go outside the wire. You can't run construction projects if you never see the sites. And we're not building things, or (in my case) running training and development programs, just because we want to. These are projects that will help make Iraq stronger and more able to stand on their own feet. The sooner they do that, the sooner the level of violence will drop, and the sooner we can all go home. And then maybe one day, in a generation or two, Iraq might actually be a fully-functioning member of the world community.

So that's what Robbie was doing here: helping this place get back on its feet. He knew the risks, just as we all do. But we have to take them if we're going to succeed. Tomorrow morning, Robbie's teammates will go back out again, taking construction managers and others to project sites or meetings in the Green Zone, or any one of a number of other places. The mission goes on.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Jambo, rafiki! I'm practicing my Swahili here. We have a lot of Ugandans on this base serving as guards at the DFACs, the BXs, MWR facilities, and a zillion and one other places. They present a rather fierce appearance when you walk up to them: stern-looking young men armed with AK-47s. Actually, as long as you're behaving yourself, they're the nicest guys in the world. "Jambo" (prounounced "JAHM-bo") means "hi"; "rafiki" (pronounced "ra-fee-kee") means "friend". My Swahili is limited to the very basics: hello, how are you, I am fine, have a good night. But evidently there aren't a lot of soldiers, civilians, or contractors around here who even know that much, so whenever I say "jambo", it always gets a reaction: a big smile, and a hearty "jamBO!" back at me.

Oh, and for those of us of a certain background, a key phrase is "Nguvu jamachie", which means "sea power"!

I've had a pretty busy week of nothing much happening. Most of my projects have been at stages where I'm waiting on somebody else to do something, so I've been working away at another task that requires painstaking attention to detail, repetitive searching of databases, and will result in virtually nothing of any importance. Guess how excited I am about this task? You got it.

Just in the past few days, though, we have had something develop that's kinda cool. One of my new projects was to provide training to workers in an Iraqi governmental organization. However, it was pretty much dead due to funding limitations, two changed deadlines, and the impossibility of getting it on contract using our normal procedures. Yesterday, we had a "get-r-done" meeting with the head of our contracting shop, our lawyer, and me, and we figured out a rather creative way to do the contract. We also learned yesterday that the focus of the training is shifting. It had been aimed at taking workers at the very basic levels - we're talking valve turners and concrete mixers - and giving them a slightly better understanding of their jobs. However, now the organization is getting several thousand new employees from the Sons of Iraq. These are the Sunnis who used to be the insurgents in Baghdad and Anbar, but came over to our side in exchange for a paycheck and the promise of full-time jobs later on. Well, now is the "later on" time and the Iraqi government is finally living up to their word. So now the task is to take several thousand Sons of Iraq, whose only job skills are using automated weapons, and teaching them how to be valve turners and concrete mixers. Or maybe taking the existing valve turners and concrete mixers and teaching them how to teach the new guys. That hasn't been determined yet. Whatever the case, my nearly-dead project suddenly has a new life. I'm much happier, too: I really don't like shutting down worthwhile projects, and I was getting to be a grumpy bastard after shutting down three.

On to another topic. The USO has been bringing more music acts through here lately. Last night, several of us went to see a concert by Bad Company. As I discovered, though, there are two Bad Company's. One consists of three of the original members; the other is Bad Company Featuring Brian Howe. Howe was the lead singer for eight years during the band's heyday, but they eventually kicked him out for being an asshole. So the group we got last night was the latter one. They didn't do a bad job, really. The lead guitarist's amp blew up during the first song. Since you can't have a rock concert without a screaming guitar, there was a 30-minute wait while somebody ran over to the Army band and borrowed an amp from them. But the patch job didn't provide the volume that the music demanded. The bass was thumping, the drums were loud, but the guitar was really hard to hear. Very well-played, from the little I could pick out. And the lead singer really was an asshole. If he was in my band, he wouldn't have lasted two days, much less eight years. I say that based on his attitude on stage, the way he treated his bandmates, and the types of "jokes" he was cracking, which were very demeaning. However, their last song was "Bad Company" and Howe dedicated it to all the soldiers who were no longer with us, saying that they are the real Bad Company. Very very cool.

Monday, March 08, 2010

A Good News Story

It's the day after the Iraqi elections and the initial reports are pretty positive. Despite a lot of rocket and mortar attacks (over 100 in Baghdad alone), the turnout was pretty heavy. Not only that, it looks like the attacks pissed off the normal Iraqis so much, they went to the polls just to spite the insurgents, even if they hadn't intended to vote! Good for them! I haven't seen much in the way of accusations of vote fraud, at least not yet, and that is also good news. There's an excellent article in the New York Times today about it, and another on NPR. Seems like all the other "news" sites I checked were more concerned about the Academy Awards and had only lightweight reporting on Iraq. I'm not really sure what that says about American priorities, except that I don't like it.

Here at Victory Base, it was a quiet day. We kept hearing some muffled "booms" in the morning, but it turned out to be just a crane that was moving some empty shipping containers on the other side of the compound. Our weather is warming up and so I went for a jog at lunch time. Last night, I even got to watch the first third of the Atlanta race, too. All in all, a pretty good day.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Friday Follies

Last night, a group of us went out to dinner at a DFAC over on the other side of the base where our offices used to be. Friday night is seafood night and this particular DFAC is known for its crab legs. As well it should be! Unlike our own culinary catastrophe, this one cooks crab legs up so they're just right, and then they pile them on your plate. All-you-can-eat, all-free crab legs. It's almost enough to make you want to sign up for a tour in Iraq. Almost.

Then we went over to one of the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) facilities for Salsa Night. Yes, here in a war zone, they have salsa night. They had a salsa class before everything got started. No, your intrepid reporter did not get up and stomp around like Lurch: he stayed on the sidelines. Salsa has a few steps to memorize and, as Janis will tell you, I have no memory. One of our group did try to teach me a little merenge, which was more my style: not quite as complicated as the two-step, it was more like "one, one, one, one ..."

Then the band started up. There's a real Army band on post and they so salsa/merenge, and they're good. It was great to hear live music again. And the dance floor came alive. All the latinos/latinas were out there moving like they'd been doing it their whole lives. Lots of palefaces, including several of our group, were out there doing their Lurch impressions. One of the most memorable dancers (NOT from our group) was one Army woman. She must be a senior Army reserve officer because she was way older than even me. Now soldiers aren't authorized civilian clothes on base, so when they want to dress casual, they wear their PT gear. So here was this senior Army lady, in shapeless Army black PT shorts, a shapeless Army grey T-shirt ... and gold high heels. Yes. I kid you not. She could move pretty well, but I could not get over those gold high heels on a senior Army officer.

Today was somebody's worst day. This morning, just before I went in to work, a couple of our security contractors parked their armored Land Cruiser, hopped out, and as they walked away, the Toyota quietly rolled backwards, then over the edge and SPLASH ... right into the canal. Took a great big tow truck, a team of riggers, two fire trucks, and three hours to get the now-ruined Land Cruiser back out. (It's just a little water, you say? You haven't seen Iraqi water!) There's probably a guy packing his bags tonight for his flight out tomorrow. Poor guy - it could have happened to anybody here.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

More on Iraqi Elections

We're getting down to the last few days before the critically-important elections in Iraq. There are some good articles in the news lately. Today, there's a New York Times article on a Shiite candidate for office. He used to be the #2 guy to Muqtada al-Sadr, who led an extremely violent Shiite faction during the worst of the fighting. This gent has tons of blood on his hands, but the Shiite-led election commission is perfectly happy to have him run for, and probably win, a seat in Parliament. Meanwhile, as described in another New York Times article, they've kicked 515 mostly Sunni candidates off the ballots. The claim is that they had ties to the Ba'ath party. However, that's like kicking somebody off the ballots in Russia because they once had ties to the Communist party. The Shia are using every means at their disposal to rig the elections to their benefit. That's normally just politics, but here in Iraq, politics have blood consequences. If the Sunnis feel like they've been robbed, then there's no doubt in my mind that there will be violence. The question is: how much? Nobody really knows at this point.

Meanwhile, Iran is steadily increasing its clout. They send books to libraries and blankets to the poor and build good will. We build libraries, housing, power plants, sewer systems, fresh water systems, schools, markets, roads, and thousands of other projects worth billions of dollars and are derided as hated occupiers. Although Iran is wielding more influence over Shia politicians, they both take pains to keep it quiet. Iraq and Iran have a long and turbulent history and the people's memories of the war in the 80's, which left a million dead, is still pretty fresh.

One of the dangers of an increasing Iranian influence is that Sunni-led nations like Saudi Arabia will step up their efforts to arm and support Iraqi Sunnis. They're already involved to some extent (not officially: there is no Saudi embassy in Iraq) and are stirring the pot.

Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is, of course, taking advantage of the situation. Al Qaeda is associated with Sunnis and is using the spector of a Shiite takeover of government to try to build its base. Most people don't buy into AQI's extremist views, but if they feel disenfranchised, then there could very well be an increase in AQI support and violence. They launched a nasty, triple-suicide bomb attack in Baquba yesterday that killed over 30 people. We'll see more in the next few days.

So where does that leave us right now? Watching, waiting, and pretty much holed up on our bases. We've already got a pretty low profile, but now the US military and civilian organizations have virtually eliminated our presence outside the wire. We do not want to give any impression that we're doing anything to influence the elections.

Unlike American elections, the outcome of Sunday's voting won't be known for quite a while. I'm hearing maybe the 18th. Since Iraq has a parliamentary style of government, they'll have to form coalitions for the government to function. Since this is Iraq, it'll take forever and will be very, very messy.

I'm due to leave here at the end of April. They might have something in place by then.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Iraqi Elections

Elections in Iraq are just five days away. This is a huge event - probably even bigger than the last round of elections a year ago. In the last elections, the US played an important (and largely invisible) role in getting the ballots out, the polling stations set up, and security arranged. This time, it's the Iraqis who are doing it.

Politics in Iraq is a blood sport. If you want an image of an Iraqi politician, think of Tony Soprano. Saddam Hussein was just Tony Soprano on steriods. With him gone, there are now thousands of Tonys all around the country, each doing whatever is necessary to advance his or her interests. And if that means rubbing out a rival, or an associate of a rival, well, many of them wouldn't think twice. It's just politics. Nothing personal. (Well, except here in Iraq, everything is personal).

Over the past year, I've seen a change from a general insurgency to specifically targeted attacks. A police chief will be shot by a sniper. A sheikh will have a sticky bomb put on his car. A family member of a particular family will be kidnapped. All of these attacks are designed for a very specific audience. Yes, there are occasional large-scale bombings that damage or destroy a whole ministry. In fact, I think we're over-due for another one, since it's been several weeks since the last. They're a bit like earthquakes: the longer the time between incidents, the bigger they're gonna be.

From the point of view of an American sitting on a base, I don't worry too much about bombs. Most are targeted against Iraqis. If there's an attack on western civilians, security forces, or the military, it's usually as a target of opportunity. At least, that's true here in the Victory Base area; some other bases (particularly up north in the Mosul area) get mortar or rocket attacks fairly regularly. Even there, though, the attacks are somewhat desultory. The focus is clearly on other Iraqis, not Americans.

The Sunnis largely boycotted the first elections several years ago and they're still paying the price. They participated in the second round of elections last year and began to recover (politically) somewhat. But now I see the same sectarian divisions rearing their heads. About 400 candidates, mostly Sunni, were disqualified from this round of elections. The election boards who disqualified them were (a) almost all Shia and (b) operating in secret. There seems to be another purge of "Baathists" going on ("Baathists" these days is a synonym for Sunnis) and it includes top personnel in ministries, the Army, and police. So the Shia seem to be working hard at keeping the Sunnis marginalized. Well, we all know how well that worked out before: that's what threw gasoline on the insurgency. Will that happen again this time? That's the million-dollar question.

There are several minefields that we're trying to get through. One is the election, which is being driven by sectarianism. I complain about the extreme partisanship between the Democrats and Republicans; that's nothing compared to Shia/Sunni/Kurd divisions. Another is security in general. Another is getting this economy off the ground - but to do that, they will have to adopt internationally-recognized ethical standards. (Actually, this is a huge cultural difference: what we see as bribery, for example, they see as just a normal business payment).

Regardless, our drawdown is still on track. We're on a bit of a hold for now, until things stabilize after the election, and then we'll kick it in gear again.

I've got just under two months left. And I'm ready to go.