Saturday, September 24, 2011

On To The Next Phase

My training in DC finished up yesterday. I have to say that what I've seen so far is way better than what I saw three years ago. These courses were very well laid out, with well-chosen topics and mostly good presenters. This week, we started with presentations and moved more into scenario-based role-playing. These demanded that we be involved and participating, and provided some excellent insight into what we'll be facing.

For example, in one role, I was on a small district-level team that was having trouble with a district official. He was always off for "consultations" in the provincial capital and never in his district. But as I put myself in his place, I realized that he couldn't read, couldn't write, didn't know what his job was supposed to be, wasn't from the area, was probably from a different tribal background, didn't know anybody, and was probably curled up in a fetal position under the desk, sucking his thumb and waiting for the hammer to fall. My job was to build his confidence, get him out to the villages and introduce him to the elders, and give him some of the basic tools to do something. Anything. Because the Afghan government doesn't have the resources to do it.

Next week, I'll be in an immersion course in Indiana. We'll be living on a pseudo-FOB (a Forward Operating Base), working with military counterparts also going thru training, and interacting with Afghans. We'll learn what to do if an MRAP rolls over and ride in a helo, live in tents and eat in DFACs. Should be fun.

So today, I have to wrap up things here in the DC area. There are some computer account issues that I have to straighten out, make a bank run, go by the post office, drop off a bag at the hotel I'll stay at next weekend, turn in the rental car, and get on the flight. Time's a-wastin'!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Week of Training

It's been a pretty busy week since my last post. I completed my first week of training for my new job. It was actually a pretty good course: every topic was important and most were taught by really good instructors. There were a few that were painful, such as the droning lecturer right after lunch (whiplash city, and not just for me), but overall, I give it high marks. This class was very large, and most of the people have experience in Iraq or Afghanistan already, some for up to five or six years. Only a few were first-timers.

This class gave us a macro overview of Afghanistan. It touched on its history, culture (repeatedly), government, economy, the US strategy, US and international organizations, dealing with the military, life at the Embassy and in the field, and much more. You can't teach everything, especially in one week, but this provided a good framework for the more specific training that will follow. This coming week, I'll be in a smaller group of people who are all headed for assignments in the field ("the field" being anywhere outside Kabul).

My bottom-line takeaway from this week's classes: Afghanistan is a much harder problem than Iraq was, and if we screw it up or pull out too soon, we'll have to go back again.

All was not classroom drudgery, however. We had a group get-together one night, and on two other nights I got to meet up with old friends. One is a friend from my Bosnian deployment - I hadn't seen him in 15 years. The other was a guy I worked closely with in Baghdad. And I'll see a couple more old friends this coming week. That's one good thing about passing through DC when you've spent time in the military or federal service. I also got to see my cousin and her son yesterday and have a wonderful dinner in Dupont Circle. I tell ya, I'm trying to make the most of the opportunities to hit some good restaurants while I can. Life's gonna change here really soon!

Today, I went down to the National Gallery of Art to get my art fix. I took my sketch pad and tried to learn a few things from the masters. Did I? I dunno. But it sure felt good to try!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Employed Again

This has been a hectic week.  I was in a group of nine new temporary employees who are all bound for Afghanistan.  We spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday getting paperwork done, badges made, inoculations injected, and training accomplished.  It was a pretty well-organized whirlwind of activity.

Wednesday was a maddening day due to the weather.  Tropical Storm Lee hit DC that day.  We had to do a lot of running around between buildings.  It seemed like whenever we had to go outside, it POURED, and as soon as we reached our destination and got inside, it quit.  And, of course, we were all wearing the standard DC civilian uniform of blazer, tie, and nice shoes.  All of which were quickly soaked in the morning, so we remained in various stages of damp/wet/drenched the rest of the day.  It rained Thursday and Friday, too, but we all decided the hell with protocol and went with our Afghanistan field uniform of work shirts, cargo pants and heavy boots.

Yesterday (Saturday), I went up to Baltimore to visit my aunt and cousin.  It was great to see them again.  They've watched me go off to quite a few adventures over the years: joining the Navy, going off to Bosnia, going to Europe after retirement, then off to Iraq three years ago, and now this.  They're not surprised by any of my foolish decisions anymore.  I always know there's a home base for me in Baltimore whenever I need it.

Today I went up to Gettysburg.  Recently, I discovered that one of my ancestors fought in the 2nd Mississippi infantry regiment and was wounded and captured at Gettysburg, and wrote about it in a blog post.  Since Gettysburg is so close to Baltimore, I didn't want to pass up the opportunity.  Last time I was there was about 45 years ago (ouch) and we didn't know anything about my ancestor then.

Quick summary: my great-great-grandfather was a private in the 2nd Mississippi.  On the first day of the battle, they attacked Union forces just northeast of Gettysburg.  They routed some, then turned and hit others from the flank.  But then they were caught in a deep cut in the hill for a railroad bed.  The sides were too steep to climb, it was too deep to fire out of, and Union forces were on the top of the cut and advancing down the tracks.  It was a killing ground before they surrendered.

Today I saw the spot where this action took place.  I have to say, exploring a national monument such as the Gettysburg battlefield is different when you have a personal connection to it.  Seeing the field across which my great-great-grandfather advanced, the ridge line where he helped route Union forces, and then the deep cut where he was trapped, wounded, and captured, was deeply moving.  Of 494 soldiers in the 2nd Mississippi that morning, 411 were killed, wounded, captured, or missing.  Numbers are one thing; knowing that one of those numbers was a personal ancestor is another.

Later, I went to see the site of Pickett's Charge.  The remnants of the 2nd Mississippi participated in that disaster.  Of 60 men who set out across the field, only one was not killed, wounded, or captured.  I stood on the spot where my great-great-grandfather's unit had started from and looked out across the field.  It was a very humbling experience.

Now I'm back in the DC area.  Gettysburg is behind me.  Tomorrow we start another class to get trained up for Afghanistan.  

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Adventure Begins

I'm officially a State Department employee again.  Today we were sworn in, got our CAC cards (special "smart" ID cards), had the nurses give us some inoculations (rabies and typhoid for me), filled out stacks of forms, and got to know our fellow classmates and support staff.  Tomorrow, we start the training program in earnest.

Getting here has been a long road.  I actually applied for this particular job back at the end of May.  A month later (late June), they contacted me, a kind of "are you sure?"check, and then about 10 days later, I was notified of my selection.  Then began the Paperwork Shuffle.  Lots of forms went back and forth over email to re-establish my security clearance, get my medical checkups completed, make sure I wasn't a war profiteer, sign up for a savings plan, and much much more.  But finally it was done and all that was left was to pack my bags and go.

While all that was going on, Janis and I were getting as much done as possible around the house to get ready.  I made sure the cars were tuned and tweaked and shouldn't need maintenance for a while.  We double-checked our own paperwork.  Janis has some special projects for the house, and we had to get things all lined up for them to get accomplished.  And we took some time out to see some of our friends and family.

As for the pending separation, we treated it in the time-honored American way: we pretended it didn't exist.  We talked as little as possible about it, and when we did, it was usually in a neutral, roundabout way.  But still, when you've been with somebody for 20 years, you can say a lot without actually saying a lot.  And we said a lot to each other.  So we're ready.

Tuesday was D-Day.  I had pretty much completed my packing the day before, so after walking the dogs one last time and having a great breakfast of machaca, we hit the road to the airport.  We were fine until we actually got there, and then ... well, it was tough, both on us and the dogs, who knew something bad was going on.  We got through it, though.  We've done it before and it actually does seem to get easier with practice.

The flight to DC was not the greatest: packed planes, delays, and crappy weather from Tropical Storm Lee.  We landed at Reagan National Airport.  I haven't been through there in 20 years, and let's just say that things have changed a bit.  They've got 10 pounds of facilities in a 5-pound section of real estate.  Picked up my rental car and promptly got lost, nearly heading straight into downtown Washington before realizing my mistake and dive-bombing across 2 lanes of traffic to head towards northern Virginia instead.  Nothing like trying to find your way through DC metro traffic at rush hour in the rain with only a vague idea of where you are and where you need to go!  I lived in the DC area twice before, but this place has changed (see previous comment about Reagan Airport).  I kept having this odd experience of knowing I'd been in this particular place before but not recognizing it at all .... kind of an anti-deja-vu feeling.  But I finally made it to my hotel, my temporary home for the next couple of weeks.  Had a gut-bomb at the McDonald's next door for dinner, unpacked my bags, and settled in.

Bright and early this morning, it was time to head into town.  I got there a bit early, which was good, and met up with the rest of my classmates.  We were run back and forth between several different locations.  Most annoying, whenever we had a long outdoor run, old Tropical Storm Lee dumped BUCKETS of rain on us, and as soon as we got to where we were going, it would stop.  We all spent most of the day in various stages of being damp, wet, or completely soaked.  No fun.  Nothing like dashing through a downpour and plunking your foot ankle-deep into an invisible pothole while wearing a DC-civilian uniform of dress pants, dress shoes, dress shirt, dress tie, and (soaking) blue blazer.

We survived, though.  Tomorrow, I'm wearing boots.  The hell with protocol.