31 August 2007

Micro Manage

Today was a day of frustration and I’m going to vent about it. Today I had to tell a field grade officer what color a generator was. Why in the hell did I have to do that?

I guess that doesn’t really explain my annoyance very well, does it? Maybe a little background information is in order.

Okay, so part of my job is to coordinate different aspects of the supporting the Iraqi borders; mainly the ports of entry. I work with different organizations so that we can coach, teach, and mentor the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement to protect their country from unwanted outside influence (seems pretty ironic, doesn’t it?). In any case, I work with Captain Chris in our engineering cell to ensure that the construction done on site is completed and then report to the higher powers on the various statuses and updates that they are looking for. In a status meeting a few days back, there were some heated questions pertaining a particular generator that was suppose to go to one of our ports. The higher powers asked if the port had power, in which we replied that it did not, but a generator was going to provide power to the port and be installed per the construction schedule. A few days later, the question was asked of the status of that generator and Chris confirmed with the program manager on site that the generator was delivered to the location as previously stated in the meeting two days ago. Then, they asked if it was a new or used generator. Okay, that sounded like a valid question. We queried the project manager on the ground and he said it was new. Then, out of left field, someone who visited the site said that they didn’t see this generator and were concerned that the port would not have power. This caused a stir all the way up to the colonel level again and the question was asked “Does the port have a generator?” The answer was the same as it was a week ago. Yes, we confirmed, the port has a generator. It’s the size of a small VW microbus and it won’t be hooked up until later. But how could that be when a person who visited the site said he couldn’t find it? Well, the person visiting didn’t link up with the project manager who would have showed them the generator was there, waiting to be hooked up.

Now erupted the senseless questions, like a giant “stupid” volcano. Where is this generator? When was it delivered? What size is it? Who signed for it? What color is it? Does it prefer white or wheat bread? Does it have a sister?

At this point I lost it. I tried to call the person requesting this information to ask them why they were so freak’n interested in this generator? Why can’t someone give a status and be held accountable for that report without everyone and their brother asking questions that have no bearing at their level? Why do some individuals feel that micro-managing makes things better? If a colonel, who is paid much more than me, doesn’t believe me when I say something is a certain way, then why am I here? Why doesn’t he run the project for me? The amount of time and effort it would take to call down to the project manager and dig up the kind of miniscule information that was being asked for just so that someone could have their “warm-fuzzy” about power situation at the port would have cost the American tax payer probably in excess of $10,000.

This infuriated me. In fact, it made me upset enough to send a scathing email littered with sarcasm and attitude to the requestor (only because the phones were not getting through to his office) which I also copied to my boss. Subsequently, I was reprimanded for this and told that if I wanted to let off steam next time to go outside and kick the T-wall behind our building.

I think I’ll be beating up a lot of T-walls if this kind of stupidity continues.

I’d take an angry Asian face picture like I normally do when I get frustrated, but I’m too mad to do that. I hope my engineers back home read this and remember this story when I come home and re-assume my job as their team lead. I hope that if I ever get close to micro-managing their projects that they will be professional. I'd want them to compose themselves like a grown up, take a deep breath to clear their thoughts, and politely kick me in my shins.

28 August 2007

Meal Time

Meals here are in some small part the highlight of any given day. This phenomenon is not due to the quality of food or décor of the DFAC. It has more to do with the fact that it’s three times in a typical work day when the Captain Mafia can get together and vent. Since most of us O-3s work in cells all over the base, we don’t get to see much of one another during the normal working day. With the exception of an occasional email or phone call, there’s just not enough time to interact with fellow captains. I think it’s human nature to relate to people of your own age and rank here. If it wasn’t for meal-time gatherings, we would toil away at our jobs in the company of field grade officers and slowly, but surely, lose our minds. Therefore we congregate over our plastic trays, filled with whatever slop the chow hall is serving, and discuss important topics such as how many days until someone goes on leave or what we are going to do on our pass.

The layout of the mess hall can be a little non-conducive to proper gossip and bullcrap sessions. The tables are only made to seat 6, its always crowded and the TVs are always blaring some insignificant sport that interferes with conversation. Seriously, do people actually watch cricket and lacrosse on satellite television? So, we try to arrive at odd meal times to avoid the crowds, we attempt to secure multiple tables that are close by, and we have the “no low talking” rule to avoid missing any juicy bit of info someone might have heard. Rumors run rampant at the captain meals, and since all of us are in different offices, there’s really no way to confirm anything. One day it’s hype over which field grade is getting fired from their position and the next day it’s which soldier got moved into a trailer bigger than Brendan and Kevin’s (that’s usually every soldier). Most of the time the conversation hinges on how much we hate this place and when we think we’ll be leaving here. The rumors are fairly outrageous (“I heard they are extending us all until the end of 2008!”) to the almost plausible (“The last unit only spent 11 months boots on ground, so we should be the same.”). We all know that it doesn’t help to believe in crazy tales based off of half truths, but it’s just a way to entertain ourselves and share in the misery. For a bunch of people recalled to work 15+ hour days away from our family and friends for a year in the middle of nowhere, it’s the only way we stay sane.

Tom W. (Tommy), my former room mate, is the bitter guy who ensures that we all know that it sucks here. Colleen (Col) only comes part time due to her mission requirements, but shares in Tommy’s bitterness. Tom N. is only slightly less bitter than Tom W. but has a sense of humor about it all that festers under a semi-controlled roid educed rage. Kevin (Rhino) is the verifier of all information and the first to tell you that the there is something interesting about this or that. Brendan is the quiet guy in the corner who is a closet dessert junkie (he only takes dessert back to his desk when no one is looking). Stacey is an aide to the general and her travels equip her with many a funny story involving people of much higher rank. Chris, my compadre since Benning, tries to show how much he doesn’t care by doing daring stunts like sleeping at work or taking a day off. Joanna (JoHa) plays the role of big sister to us all, not because she is older than us, but most of our jobs are in her hands since she works in the personnel section. Ryan, my current room mate, is not a regular at the table, but he tries to stop by and tell us how huge he’s getting from working out. There are others that I didn’t mention (Scottie Mack, Claudia, Shane the 1LT, Jen the MP LNO and sometimes Tad), not because they are any less important, but they aren’t the regular crew. They can’t be considered part of the mafia if they don’t frequently contribute to the combined misery.

In all seriousness, they are a good group of officers who are working hard to get the job done (even if they don’t admit it). We are the lowest ranking folks in a world of brass and we do the work long after the field grades go home to their private one room trailers at night. We do some silly things and rip on each other enough to draw attention from those around us, but that’s how we look out for one another. We stick together, pick each other up when we are down, and ensure that we know that we will all get through this, one way or another.

I’ve continually tried to get a picture of this motley crew but am foiled by the “no cameras in the mess hall” rule that is enforced by roving guards. I guess they don’t want us to leak out any DFAC culinary secrets to the bad guys. Most of us are trying to take our 4 day pass together to spend some time outside of the war zone to watch some football and shop. Okay, maybe I should clarify. The guys are going to watch football together and the women are going to shop. Sounds stereotypical, but so does me attempting to take pictures of everybody.

26 August 2007

CPT Tyler

The purpose of me writing this blog was to keep my family and friends informed of what in the hell I’m doing over here (although I find that I ask myself that question more and more lately). I try not to get too serious about things because despite my best attempts to keep things light, one can’t ignore the fact that we are in a war zone. The day my convoy left Rabea’a for Sykes we had a report of a giant tanker explosion near Tal Afar / Sinjar area that took the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians and wounded countless others. Empty seats on my convoy were taken by translators who had family in the vicinity of the blast and they were desperately asking the military to take a break in their mission and help them get to their homes in order to check on loved ones (which Brent and his men did without question). Four days ago a Blackhawk went down north of here and killed 14 soldiers, one of which was a ’99 grad by the name of Captain Corry Tyler. He was a plebe when I was a senior, and while the only things we had in common was that we shared a year at the academy together, his death gave me reason to pause. He was serving in his third tour in Iraq of which he didn’t have to do. He volunteered for this tour and at the time of his death, he only had 2 more months to go before returning back to the states and his family. It is a sad story, not just for him, but also for the 13 others who lost their lives in the crash. Reading the entries of his eulogy, he seemed like a good guy and a great officer which made me regret that I didn’t know him. Every death here is tragic and I’m not sure why Corry’s death hit me hard enough to convince me to actually write about it. Maybe it’s because there has been a lot on my mind lately (and a lot of events that I don’t or can’t write about) and things like this make me stop and ponder if I’m really doing any good here and why so many people like Corry chose to stay here in harms way. Individuals like him make me feel like I am truly surrounded by countless heroes who ironically don’t want to be heroes. They just want to do their job, a job they believe in, and then be allowed to go home. It makes me sad that he was taken away from his family and confused about why it happened, but it also makes me glad to be alive. I feel slightly guilty about that last part and I’m not sure why. It has compounded the feelings stacking up lately as I reflect on my life, my purpose and what I want to do after this whole deployment thing is over. I won’t delve much deeper than that. I will say that I struggle to realize if any of my daily efforts help soldiers or Iraqis here. In the meantime, I’m still waiting for that “ah-ha” moment that will bring clarity to my mission and justify the call to give 545 days of my life in service to the nation. I thought I would get that feeling once I got back to the IZ and could start sending support to the port I just visited. Turns out it won’t be that easy of a task, especially when everyone wants to give excuses of why they can’t help instead of actually trying. I hope I don't get that bitter.

Link to CPT Corry Tyler's eulogy

God bless him, the soldiers in the Blackhawk with him, and their families.

By the way, I’m now officially one third of the way through my deployment. I’m at the 120 day mark today, which is just shy of four months. I’m trying to keep my head up and focus on the mission, but it's hard not to think about the next break (only two weeks away) which will be my first four day “pass” from theater. I’m looking forward to a short vacation from the routine here, but I wish I was going home on my two weeks of leave instead.

I promise the next blog entry won't be so glum.

Back in the IZ

I came in last night on the wings of another Chinook flight that has added to my ever growing displeasure of traveling here. Normally, I enjoy taking trips. I like the adventure involved, the change of scenery and the anticipation of visiting someplace new. Sitting in a very hot helicopter, crammed amongst the collection of baggage, pallets and soldiers, as you take a 3 hour late night tour of the countryside for a ride that should only take 30 minutes is not so much an adventure as it is an ordeal. You can’t read a book or enjoy the scenery and it’s too noisy to hold a conversation with anyone near you. The only reprieve you get from the bar under the cargo net seating from numbing your left butt cheek is during refueling stops (of which we had 3 last night) where they shuttle everyone off at a remote pad and top the birds off for the next leg. As soon as they are all fueled up, it’s everyone back onto the birds as fast as you can so you can wait on the tarmac for clearance. For a minute you feel happy to be out of the hot rotor wash, but then you remember that your seat inside is destined to rob your end of feeling, so you shift to sacrifice the other butt cheek for the next leg of the flight.

We flew in two days ago to Spiecher on a last minute log flight and stayed with the same Marines that started this whole trip, although due to some mission requirements we didn’t see much of them. There was work being done to the power grid in the area so the M*A*S*H tent we occupied last time was absent of power and subsequently lacking in A/C. It made sleeping a little rough, but once the heat dissipated from the concrete barriers and Hescos, the temps dropped to a comfortable 87 degrees.

Now we are back within the confines of the IZ and it’s good to sleep in a familiar environment. I had to bust into my room at three in the morning disturbing Ryan, my trailer mate, from his slumber and I took a long hot shower which probably woke up the neighbors as well. Our walls are just two or three millimeters greater than newsprint. Normally I would try to be considerate of everyone’s sleep time, but I didn’t care as I had to wash the funk of the last 3 days of travel off before I laid down in my bed.

Nine o’clock was the latest I could sleep in before I got up and rolled into work today. It was not something I was looking forward to, but it had to be done because there is much to do. The computer on my desk tells me that I have 248 email messages in the last 10 days that I need to swim through and my boss back here wants a trip report to send to higher before the day’s end, which is very ambitious given my current state of consciousness. While I don’t plan on winning the war today, I do want to take a stab at the pile of work on my desk so I can leave early. I’ve got some laundry to do and I’m thinking that I will take advantage of my comfy mattress cover and semi-reliable A/C for an early rack session.

*Note: This blog and the ones previous to this were written over a week ago during my trip up to the border. I didn’t post them all at once because it would be a lot to read, so I just posted them one at a time to fill in the days.

Also, for those of you who are wondering, Brendan has not deserted the Army in order to coach the Iraqi junior Olympic soccer team nor has he taken up the lucrative career of professional pirated DVD salesman. He is fine, but busy. When he is not battling to save Babel, he is battling Rhino for space in his tiny room.
I'm pretty sure the hat is not authorized with that uniform

24 August 2007

Déjà vu

This place has that eerie feeling that I’ve been here before. Well, that’s because I have. I’m back at Sykes after an early morning convoy. Our birds were cancelled last night and there was fear that we would be stuck in Rabea’a for another 3 days. Thanks to Brent and his band of merry men, the LTC and I are now on the first legs of our journey back to Baghdad. The connecting flight out of here is suppose to leave this evening. We’ll see if we make that one.

Pictures from the early morning convoy

Before my departure from Heider last night, I met a gentleman by the name of Jim Spiri. I didn't know what he did on the base up there as it was obvious that he didn't wear the uniform of a soldier or the attire of a contractor. He was a photographer as far as I could tell and he followed the teams around taking pictures. At first I thought he was one of those combat photo journalists, but it turns out he's just a guy who likes to travel around and write about his visits with the soldiers and Iraqis in this area. He gave me a about half a gig of pictures he took in that area on the condition that I would give him credit for any of the photos I use on my blog. While I didn't add any of his pics these past few days, I did put his link on my site. It's always good to see different perspectives of the war and he and his camera have done a good job of documenting that.

Sykes is probably one of the best kept secrets in the world of FOBs over here. It has a decent mess hall, a small PX, and a huge MWR (morale, welfare and recreation) building. This converted warehouse houses the largest movie theater, gym and rec room I’ve seen over here. There aren’t enough soldiers here to use all of the facilities so it’s never really crowded. After being on the road for the better part of a week, I wanted to go work out but was lacking the proper gym attire to do so. So, I stood in line for the internet access to send back my situation reports and to try and read some email. Unfortunately, the connection was slow and to avoid viruses, they don’t allow thumb drives into the lab. This prevented me from replying all of the emails I wanted to or updating the blog. It was disappointing, but I was glad to be connected to the rest of the world for a little bit.

The phone system requires a type of phone card that I did not have so I had to wait in line for a DSN phone in the terminal. This particular phone was not the greatest, but after several attempts to use my calling card, I got through to wish my girlfriend a happy birthday. Being far away for days like this really brings down morale. Missing important dates is just one of the many reasons these deployments are taxing on relationships. It was a short conversation due to the folks at the terminal waiting to use the phone to make arrangement for their connecting chopper flights, but it was good to hear a familiar voice after being on the road for so long. I told her to call and tell my folks I’m still alive and I’m sure she’ll do just that after she’s finished partying for her birthday. I miss her, and I wish I was there to spend her birthday with her.

The terminal has become our second home here. At least the A/C works.

We are in waiting mode, again, I’m tasked with typing up trip reports and task matrix for all of the things we need to do when we get back to our home base. It might still take 4 more days to get there, but I’ve got enough work to hold me over for a few days. Thank goodness I brought my computer.

Sunset last night at the port. Bye Bye Hippster!

23 August 2007

Dog and pony show - Rabea’a part 2

To continue from yesterday’s observations, here is a list of interesting things I’ve seen in the last 24 hours:

- Floating parking lots
- A cat that acts drunk, but really isn’t
- Extreme load bearing tests of the roof on a 1978 Chevy Suburban
- A friend of a friend who I haven’t seen in over 7 years
- A bird nest, in the hallway of the Iraqi Customs Security Building
- CareBears
- The ridiculousness that ensues when a general officer wants to tour of the port facility

Since I ended last time with a sad story about a cat, let me start this blog off with a feel good story that involves a cat. Let me tell you about Hippster. Hippster is a young stray cat that has become the unofficial mascot of the POETT at Haider. He should, for all intents and purposes, be dead. As a kitten he got into some rat poison which messed him up pretty good. It affected his muscle motor control which robs him of the sleek and graceful movement of a normal cat and replaced it with the gait of a drunkard. He walks sideways most of the time and frequently falls down for no apparent reason. His disability doesn’t stop him from being a cat though. He chases flies, climbs Hesco barriers and loves attention just like your typical feline. If it wasn’t for the POETT caring for him thus earning him the title of best fed cat in Iraq, he never would have survived his first kitty birthday in this harsh environment. He’s got good protection now, just as long as he doesn’t start side stepping up the grain tower stairs any time soon.

The Hippster

Yesterday and today was spent getting ready for a big visit from some high ranking folks at the POE. It was just coincident that LTC Ron and I were here for the tour and we were witness to a magical transformation of the port that only happens when important people come calling. Barriers were suddenly painted bright white, workers were actually wearing uniforms and trash that normally litters the place was partially picked up. In the last 24 hours, they tidied the entire port up in preparation for an Iraqi and US General visit. I guess it’s really no different than what we would do in the Army, or for that matter, what any normal person would do. If you have guest coming over, you tend to clean the dishes in the sink, hit the visible areas with a duster and even pick up the dirty laundry on the floor. I think it’s human nature to do that, but in this case it seems counterproductive to our efforts to make things better. A fresh coat of paint just hides the desperate need for infrastructure improvements, litter picked up from the vehicle inspection lot doesn’t allow one to see that the lot is made of roofing tar poured on the ground instead of asphalt or concrete, and a clean, pressed uniform only conceals the corruption of the person wearing it. Sometimes I think the high ranking individuals forget the lessons they should have learned with their rank and their little “visits” don’t accomplish anything but getting everyone into a frenzy to put on a show that doesn’t reflect truth.

5 star accomodations

The one good thing about the tour happened before the entourage showed up. I was sitting in the largest room the unit had for briefings when I noticed a guy sitting near the refrigerator that I recognized, or at least I thought I did. Turned out that he was a friend of a friend that I only briefly met many moons ago that I didn’t recognize because he had a mustache (and I think he put on some weight). Our mutual friends from Kansas had told each other that we would be in country at the same time, but Iraq is a big place. The chances of me getting to the border where he now worked were one in a million, but here we were, shooting the bull about our different experiences in the land of sand. It’s a small Army.

Bird nest in the hallway of the port

Our mission should end tonight as we catch two helos leaving for Sykes, although with our luck on transportation, this is more hopeful thinking than an actual plan. It’s been a good visit here to the border and I have a new sense of purpose in my job to help the port team and their mission at Rabea’a. Although the team didn’t have much, they offered up the little space they had, they fed us grilled food from their personal stash when our only other options were MREs or tainted MKT (mobile kitchen trailer) food, and they made two relative strangers feel welcome in a very foreign place. I feel vested in the future of their assignment here and having a goal will keep me focused (and that should make the time go by faster, I hope).

I don't know what's sadder, the fact that Love-a-Lot Bear is co-pilot of this truck or that I know his name is Love-a-Lot.

20 August 2007

Wild West: Rabea'a part 1

Interesting things I’ve seen in the last 24 hours:

- The largest flock of sheep I’ve ever seen (stretched a good 2 or 3 square acres)
- A Mexican standoff between a HMMWV and a donkey (can it be considered a “Mexican” standoff if it’s an Iraqi donkey?)
- Cow tipping, US Army style
- A HMMWV playing chicken with, you guessed it, a chicken
- Creative uses for a grain warehouse – or – the sad excuse for a stable living area for soldiers
- A two story pile of potato chips
- A flying cat

Roaming sheep

Last night we convoyed to our final destination. After countless cancelled flights and multiple visits to many airbases, I now sit in the Iraqi port of entry (POE) known as Rabea’a. Actually, I’m currently sitting in the FOB adjacent to the port because the port isn’t the type of place to just hang out and type blogs. In fact, it’s utter chaos over there, but I’ll get to that in a little bit. First let me tell you the interesting long distance convoy. Yesterday we left FOB Sykes when our pick up came a little earlier than we expected. Instead of a dusk trip where there was a chance of cooler weather, we departed under a hot high sun for what felt like a very long ride. The POETT (Port of Entry Transition Team) picked us up in up-armored HMMWVs, which as we all know is the vehicle of choice when one travels through a part of town where people shoot at you. Because we were just lowly passengers, LTC Ron and I couldn’t pick a seat up front or in the turret (no calling “shotgun” in this scenario). Instead, we sat in the cheap seats in the back and relaxed for a leisurely stroll through Tal Afar and points beyond. We were always told that things are greener up in Northern Iraq and have heard stories of lush fields of grass and droves of trees with a backdrop of the picturesque snow capped Sinjar Mountains. I’m not sure if it was due to the fact that it’s the middle of the hottest month of the year or everyone was lying to me, but I failed to see much green let alone snow. The terrain actually reminded me of west Texas with vast amounts of rolling rocky dirt speckled with small patches of scrub. What wasn’t covered in dust or pebbles was taken up by sheep. Lots and lots of sheep. Apparently the sheep are very coveted in this area for their wool and their meat, which makes them a prime target for smuggling. That’s right, you heard it here first; sheep smuggling is a serious problem in Iraq and the coalition needs to do something about it. Who knew? Sheep aren’t the only wildlife in this area. Donkey carts appear to be the primary mode of transportation in the smaller villages we passed through, and you’ll even run into a few cows on the road (literally).

Look at the LTC, all cozy in his back seat Hummer ride

After the trip in the sweat-box, we arrived at FOB Heider around dinner time. We threw our gear in the deluxe accommodations of the former “grain storage warehouse turned makeshift barracks” and tried to get over the excitement that we actually made it where no other Border Forces team member from Baghdad has made it before. We wanted to find out what was going on at the port, assess the progress of the transition, streamline procedures and resolve infrastructure issues (we had a lot of spare time to excited about this) but it was getting late and the port closed at nightfall. The Army Major in charge of the POETT gave us a Cliff-notes version of how things were going and said that we could address more of the issues tomorrow once we actually got on the port. The Major, a special forces/ranger type who just left his command of a SF Team, was initially not very receptive to us. In fact, he didn’t even know we were coming and what we were here to do. It made him and his team, which consisted of military, Department of Homeland Security agents, and a handful of contractors very stand offish. We learned that there was a significant breakdown in communication and promised ourselves not to rely on someone else coordinating our movements in the future. Anyway, after some explaining what we were here to do (mainly help them and their mission), they warmed up to us, but like us, they were tired of after a day of traveling in the heat. We called it a night and departed for our 4 star room with the satisfaction that we were here.

FOB Heider is located next to POE Rabea’a, which is located west of Mosul on the Syrian border. POE Rabea’a is one of 2 open ports of entry into Iraq from Syria. With over 4000 pedestrians and 400 trucks a day moving through the port, it provides a major source of income for the government of Iraq through taxes and duties of oil and goods traveling between the countries. Different ministries operate out of the port to collect fees to include the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Oil, Ministry of Transportation and my personal favorite, Ministry of Tourism. And let’s not forget the most prominent ministry on the port, and that would be the Ministry of Pocket, which is in reference to the corruption that exists in places like this. Now Syria isn’t the best when it comes to regulating the people or products who enter and leave their country, so some of those undesirable tend to leach into Iraq through the ports and borders. We as the coalition and the Iraqi government both have a stake in preventing these undesirables (and we’re not talking about sheep here) from entering the country, which explains the strong US presence. Without getting into the details, the Major and his small team have an important mission and they do it with virtually no support, which is the main reason the LTC and I took 6 days to get here.

The makeshift housing. By the way, those are concrete roof truses, that are not very stable.

This morning we climbed the 13 story former grain silo to get an aerial view of the physical layout of the port. It was a long climb but the view was well worth the effort. The Major gave me a virtual tour of the port, which was already getting crowded with people and trucks at this early hour. The bird’s eye view helped me navigate the port once we climbed down, put all of our gear on set out on our foot tour. Now I’m a person with no experience about ports of entry. I’ve been to the Mexican border in Texas and saw what on a port looked like from afar, but I’ve never really had to go through a land POE before. When the Major led us through the checkpoints and T-wall maze to finally enter Rabea’a POE, we entered a world full of noise and chaos. Trucks stacked to the sky were parked everywhere as inspectors and customs brokers exchanged forms and money. Cars over laden with families and farm animals jockeyed for position in line to be served next. Pedestrians, dressed in a myriad of different clothing were waiving passports at guards while little kids with coolers darted in and out of the crowds trying to sell their liquid wares to the hot bystanders. It appeared to be shear madness until the Major explained the method of getting from one country to another. We walked to each station and observed the process and in spite of the pushing and shoving of the passengers and the yelling and shoving of the guards, there existed a logical flow. The areas that needed improvements were obvious even to me, and I quickly jotted down my own notes before seeing the Iraqi port director about his concerns. After a long briefing in his office, and much chai (tea), I returned to the FOB excited at the prospect that I might actually be able to help this place and anxious for a bathroom. I still have to sit down with the POETT and get their evaluation, but I feel energized to make a change, especially after the fiasco it took to get here.

Mound - o - chips

I think I touched on most of the things I saw today and where I could, I took photos. One of the things I did not take a picture of is one of those funny/sad stories and it deals with a cat. I originally wrote a narrative of the incident but decided against posting it as it could offend some cat lovers out there (only because despite the tragedy of it all, it was damn funny).

Oh, in regards to the competition between the HMMWV and the chicken... the HMMWV won.


Welcome to FOB Sykes. Just one more stop in our “World Tour of Baghdad”. In case you are keeping track at home, this will be my third airbase in five days. I’ve traveled on three different helicopters; a Marine Sea Knight, an Army Blackhawk, and last night’s flight was on a very old and hot Chinook. I’ve slept in three different bases on a mix of cots and dusty mattresses and I’ve eaten at three separate chow halls. In order to get something out of this endless travel, I’m thinking of moonlighting as a food critic for the various military DFACs. I could travel from base to base and critique their culinary skills and get fat in the process. Experience from these past few days of travel has led me to believe that despite the changes in buildings, decorations, styles of plastic serving trays and nationality of the food servers, the food is pretty much the same across Iraq. My travel should also afford me the title of official restroom/porta potty inspector, but I think I had a family member who earned that title already from her own travels across the US. Maybe she would afford me the title of “international restroom inspector” if I asked nicely.

FOB Sykes is an Army airbase, just like Spiecher. Al Asad was a Marine airbase, which is why they tried to trap us Army guys there and suck out our will to live by cancelling all of our flights. Note to self: bring the Marine Gunny in our section with us next time we travel to Al Asad to run interference and speak “Marine-eez”. Either that or buy a set of Marine fatigues and learn how to say “Hoo-rah” instead of “Huah”. One odd thing about this airbase is the presence of so many soldiers. It’s not like I don’t see soldiers in Baghdad. In the mess hall I frequent in B-town, captains and below represent the minority while here, I am probably the second highest ranking individual in the entire DFAC. It’s odd. I miss soldiers. I know I’ve said it before but I still miss their eagerness and dedication. They are the “doers” for the Army and its good to see that are so many “doers” here executing the plans and conducting the missions that the higher churns out. A general somewhere just might concoct some hair brain idea to get us out of this country, but it’s going to be a lowly soldier who will actually do the work. Props out to them all.

In a total twist to norm of our epic journey, for the first time in five days we are not waiting on a helicopter. That’s right, no airlift from here to our final destination on the border. Instead we are waiting on a convoy to depart from the COB (combat operating base) and come pick me and the LTC up. After growing disenchanted with whole air-lift procedures here, I’m looking forward to a mode of transportation that is slightly more reliable. Barring any unforeseen problems, that should happen prior to supper time.

It's a little fuzzy, but the temp is 120. And I thought it was suppose to be cooler up north!

19 August 2007

I hate this place. Why did I ever keep my name on the stupid roster.

Rescued by the Marines

No crap, there I was, stuck in Al Asad airbase in the middle of Al Anbar Province, Iraq. My five man team sent on a mission to the borders only numbered two after three members saw no hope on the horizon of escaping the base and bailed out, opting to take their chances of catching a flight back to Baghdad without their military escorts. Now it was just the LTC and I, stranded on a remote airstrip, determined to reach the edge of this country if it killed us. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that important, but we really did want to complete some portion of the original mission and we were prepared to wait out the finicky air system, or at least until they kicked us out of our VIP storage closet. After considerable nagging of flight personnel at the airhead, we soon realized that all of the original flight plans were cancelled with little hope of making it west any time soon. It was time to cash in a life line. We phoned-a-friend and called up the regional Marine team who originally made the travel arrangements for our little borders jaunt to see what they could do for us poor Army pukes. Phone calls were made, information was traded, and I found myself standing outside under the desert sun searching for satellites on my GPS to give the choppers a grid coordinate (because the folks at the airbase didn’t know where they were in relation to earth, which concerned me). After some questionable information was passed through our Marine contact, we discovered that the birds (helicopters) were already in route to pick us up at LZ Ripper. LZ Ripper? We were at Al Asad Airbase, not LZ Ripper! Communications were abruptly cut off and we only had the name of an LZ and a time to be there. We were scrounging for a person who could tell us where this LZ Ripper was at. Again, the personnel working the air movement desk just shrugged their shoulders at our questions, but salvation came in the form of a Marine gunny sergeant who not only knew where this LZ was, he also had a vehicle that could take us there. Success! We gathered our armor, weapons and bags and climbed into a 4 door Ford Ranger for a bumpy ride across the base to this remote landing zone. Now, let when I say remote, I mean in the sticks. There was no air transportation office, no building, no shed; there was no structure of any type. There wasn’t even a port-a-potty. Just a strip of concrete surrounded by low jersey barriers surrounded by sand. This caused a slight hint of concern as the gunny dropped us off. Were we about to be bamboozled and left in the middle of the desert as part of an elaborate trick that the Marine Corps did for all Army personnel unfortunate enough to go through their base? He assured us that this was in fact LZ Ripper, and then he left. The LTC and I looked at one another, looked at the setting sun, and tried to reassure ourselves that everything was going to work out despite the fact that we had no communication capability with the person who made this flight plan or with the pilots picking us up. If something did go wrong, we’d have to hump it pretty far to the next piece of semi-civilization. Everything was going to work out, wasn’t it? I mean, what could go wrong?

Okay, we were a little concerned, but as the sun started to dip behind a distant berm we heard the familiar thud of UH-60 Blackhawks, a sound that I normally scorn since my living trailer back in Baghdad is next to a landing zone. A forceful dust storm proceeded the landing of two helos on this little remote pad and a gunner directed us to approach the bird. We couldn’t help but feel a little important. I mean two Blackhawk helicopters were sent across the country to come pick up the two of us, a light colonel and little ol’ captain. We had to be somebody to rate our very own choppers! The gunner ignored our giddy excitement of our new found status and exchanged some cursory information.

Helos to the rescue!

“Good evening sir. Are you the two officers we’re suppose to pick up?”

“I guess so, because I don’t see another human being for miles around.”

“Where are you going sir?”

“Going to FOB Spiecher.”

“Roger that sir. Which landing zone?”

“Not sure. We didn’t realize that there were multiple locations. The Marines said that they were sending a few helos to come get us. Can you take us to the nearest Marine unit on the FOB?”

“Sir, I’m not sure where the Marines are on Spiecher.”

“Umm. Okay. Can you just take us away from here? We lost our VIP room.”

“Your what?”

“Never mind.”

After a smooth flight across barren landscape of Anbar Province bathed in a warm orange glow of the quickly setting sun, we landed an hour later at FOB Spiecher in the complete blackness of a desert night, clueless to where we were or where to go. Across the tarmac I lugged my gear to a set of lights and found that the Marines we were looking for lived a mere 45 yards away. How lucky was that? We stumbled into their TOC (tactical operation center) hidden in an enclave of T-walls and Hesco barriers under a Semper Fi flag. Our reception into their operation center, which also served as their living quarters, resembled a reunion of long lost friends. With open arms they offered us water, food, and a place to rest, all the while apologizing for the mess up in the flights. They took us on a nickel tour of the office and without our knowledge, swept our gear up and placed it on cots in an air conditioned tent just around the corner. I think that if they had mints to put on our beds or knew how to make funny animals out of towels, they would have done both. Weary from traveling, we retired to our tent, glad to be away from Al Asad.

Our little M*A*S*H like hooch

And that is how we were rescued by the Marines.

We woke up this morning in our MASH like tent to the sounds of choppers and UAVs racing into the fight. The Marines are now busy beating up on an Army team in softball and today I’m rooting for the Marines. The LTC and I are just waiting for the next leg of our journey after trekking the half mile to the nearest chow hall and being introduced to the “co-ed” toilet and shower facilities. Interesting. Okay, maybe not that interesting. The shower trailer has a sliding sign to denote the sex of the occupants, but we were informed that it is always wise to knock so that no one is surprised. The toilet trailer, now there is a different story. It has a row of stalls and sinks, absent of the normal stand up urinals. Really not that far out of a concept due to the limited space here, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a little weird to use a stall in a bathroom and hear a woman’s voice in the next stall. Making eye contact at the sinks afterwards is also a little awkward.

God bless the Marines!
Our stay here should not be long as the Marines have manifested us on another bird. If all goes well, a helicopter will get us to FOB Sykes tonight.


18 August 2007

Dust maker

I want a Gator. Or better yet, I want a Ranger. I’m not talking about a pet crocodile or a national parks worker. I’m talking in terms of John Deere and Polaris. These are the 2 seater, 4 wheeled (sometimes 6 wheeled) all terrain vehicles (ATV) that I see zipping around the bases here. I see a few of them back in the IZ, but here in Al Asad, there are hundreds. Most are used by base engineers making repairs to the living trailers or by crusty FOB sergeants major who just want a vehicle to putz around in. Judging by the number of dust trails I see kicking up on the access roads, Al Asad must be home to a lot of crusty SGMs.

These vehicles fill the small niche in the lack of personal transportation here; the perfect compromise between riding a bike (and looking ridiculous with your helmet and armor on) and being tied to the bus route. I’m not sure what the appeal is about them. Maybe it’s the fact I never had a go cart as a kid. Jealous was the 12 year old whose friend had an acre of land and a lawnmower powered source of transportation. Everyone took turns zooming around a pseudo dirt track before you ran out of gas or someone ran into something, thus rendering the vehicle inoperable for the rest of the afternoon (or if you were too short to reach the break and drove off into a ditch). A two seater was even better because you could double the enjoyment. It was always preferable to be the driver, but a passenger, with dirt and rocks flying up and hitting you in the head, had the ability enjoy in the fun and convince the driver that he didn’t have a hair on his ass if he didn’t take that jump at full throttle. Looking at the practicality of it, I don’t even know what I would do with a two seater ATV back home. It’s not like I’m a hunter who needs a utility vehicle to haul his elk carcass out of the backwoods or a ranch owner that needs a mode of transportation to check out the back forty acres. If I wanted a “fun” vehicle, I could get a dirt bike, or even a regular one person ATV. They are both much cheaper, faster and they don’t have the “jacked up golf cart” look to them. I have friends who have single seat ATVs they use for hunting, and unless you have your own you can’t really go riding with them. Face it, there is just no cool way to fit two guys on a bike or ATV, which is one of the many manly reasons for getting a side by side. Seeing the folks zip around here in these mini utility vehicles makes me wish I lived on a farm to justify purchasing one when I get back. Some already come with windshields, dump beds, stereos, and even have A/C! Of course I would modify it by adding a massive roll cage adorned with flood lights, a winch, a push bumper, trailer hitch, maybe some chrome or brushed aluminum wheels, and a 5 point racing harness for the driver and passenger. Did I mention the custom paint job with chrome flames? I’d want to keep the functionality of it without turning it into a sand rail or dune buggy, therefore it has to have the option of adding a lawn mower attachment to it for when I get too old to blaze trails.

I think the appeal has to do with the freedom they represent here in Iraq. Not very many people have their own dedicated transportation. Those who are not fortunate enough to have a job that assigns them their very own Ford Explorer to drive wherever they wish (within the confines of the base of course) are slaves to the bus schedule. For people who live in big cities and frequently use public transportation, this does not pose a dilemma for them, but even the seasoned urban commuter will frown at the fact that our buses never run on time and waiting outside in 110+ temps in your battle rattle is far from fun.

So, when I get home, I will fight the urge to run out to my local Polaris dealer and start outfitting a tricked out 4 wheeler (and a matching trailer) which will just take up space in the garage next to my road bike, my mountain bike, and workbench, only to get the standard coating of saw dust that all my toys get after a winter of woodworking. Instead, I’ll just add this to my wish list, which includes a Waverunner, a bass boat, and a house (not necessarily in any order of priority). In the meantime, I can still look at them with an envious eye and dream of making up for the various off-road adventures I missed out on as a kid.

Polaris Ranger 6x6

Polaris RZR

Still stuck here in Al Asad. Maybe we'll leave tomorrow.

17 August 2007

Cool Breeze

Cool air. That’s something that you don’t feel every day here in Iraq, unless it originates from an air conditioning vent. But there I was, standing outside on a landing zone somewhere west of Baghdad under the crescent moon with a chilled breeze blowing through the nooks and crannies of my body armor. For a few seconds, I wasn’t in the desert or in a war zone. I was at Lake Hubbard, Michigan, lying on my back on a dock looking at the northern lights and enjoying a cool Michigan summer night. Amazing how something as simple as a breeze can take you to a happy place. Now if I only had Ken’s jet ski to ride...

Al Asad Airbase is our home for the next who knows how many days. Thanks to my boss, we are staying in the VIP billeting. The two bunk beds, miniature TV and couch inside the hanger says that it’s for important guests, but the brooms and trash stacked in the corner says this is nothing more than a storage closet. Our 5 man team is waiting on air transportation to get to our next destination, which is a common theme here in Iraq. You tend to do a LOT of waiting on the next airplane or helicopter which are frequently delayed due to weather or other high priority missions. Sitting around in a hanger waiting for the next flight manifest can suck the life out of you, but I’m armed with enough books to keep me occupied for at least a couple of days, and when I run out of reading material, I can always watch the big screen TV with the sketchy satellite reception. Right now, George Bush is on the tube giving a brief, although it looks more like watching Max Headroom than the commander in chief.

What ever happened to Max Headroom anyway?

As you can see, not much to see here in Al Asad

Not much to see at all

07 August 2007


Leaving the IZ is met with mixed feelings. After what seems like endless days of sitting behind a computer, constructing slides and dealing with higher brass, one is overwhelmed with giddiness at the prospect of shedding the shackles that bind them to their desk in order to flee from the “green zone” on a mission. However, there exists a small sense of security that one gets from the knowledge that armed men and women are standing guard to keep the enemy at bay along the perimeter of our little alcove in the city, so why would we be so eager to leave? You don’t have to be a military analyst to acknowledge differences of inside and outside the IZ. Outside the wire, watchful eyes of turret gunners in armored convoys are a stark contrast when compared to the inside environment of enthusiastic Indian bus drivers piloting soft skinned mini-buses filled with armored clad soldiers to work. Plus, as I’ve stated before, anyone who is jarred awake by a mortar round or had their trailer toilet destroyed by a rocket will argue that the green zone isn’t so green. So, if you are not safe in your hooch and you are not safe at work (and you’re definitely not safe going to the bathroom), you might as well get out and do something semi-constructive.

Most escapes are only day trips thus making the excitement of freedom short lived. On occasion, these excursions cover multiple days in order to reach far off destinations, of which I’ve been privy to only a few such outings. More often than not, trips last a lot longer than one packs enough clean clothes for because time waiting for military flight availability and unpredictable weather constantly try to outlasting your supply of dry underwear. Who in their right mind packs 4 t-shirts for a 2 day trip or better yet, who takes up room in their pack for a blanket while traveling in a desert in the middle of summer? After a few days sweating on a hot tarmac of some distant landing zone or freezing beneath an air conditioning vent in a tent, you quickly learn to pack for the unpredictable.

On a serious note, we have soldiers who go out every day, sometimes multiple times, in order to protect our movements from place to place. These young soldiers of the convoy companies are true warriors who risk their lives doing what they do so that I can sit here and complain about how I hate to sit behind my computer each day. Every one of them is a hero in my book and I can’t thank them enough.

So, although I’ve been absent from the blog scene for a few, it looks like I’ll be gone for a little while longer. The availability of power, time and access will determine how much I can update the site, but then again, absence of those things have never stopped me from trying before.

Mom and Dad, don’t worry. I’ll be safe.