29 September 2007

Go Mashers!

I think I will take a break from my rambling to give a shout out to some folks riding their butt’s off for a good cause. Team Mary’s Mashers are navigating their trusty metal steeds over 150 miles of east coast roads in the Delaware MS bike ride today. This energetic 4 person team (along with an awesome support vehicle operator) will pedal 75 miles today and 75 miles tomorrow in hopes to raise money for MS research. And at the helm of this lineup is Mary who is not only the brave team leader, but she is also has MS.

Those of you who know me are aware of the charities I support. I’ve given money and time to organizations like the
LIVEStrong Foundation, the American Cancer Society and other groups that support research in finding cures for cancer. I still wear my “yellow band”, long after they have gone out of style and are no longer the fad. I don’t do it for attention or as a “look at me” tool, but rather I brand it to show awareness of the disease that has taken the lives of countless people in my life, to include three grandparents. But today is not about me or the charities that I contribute to. Today's entry is for a team comprised of some wonderful people riding to raise money and awareness of a disease, like cancer, that science hasn’t found a cure for yet. Multiple Sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the protective lining of your nerves. Victims of MS have various symptoms because the disease attacks different nerves. They can have decreased coordination, loss of balance, numbness, muscle spasms and fatigue, and that’s just a few of the symptoms. With medication and education, people with MS can manage the effects and live normal lives and there are even extraordinary people like Mary who don’t let the disease slow her down, not even a little bit. Just to give you an idea of her enthusiasm, not 24 hours ago she was in a business meeting in California (but she lives in Ohio) and she proceded to fly straight into Delaware to pedal with her team today. If that's not motivated, I'm not sure what is. Like cancer, there is a lot of research going into fighting this disease and scientists have made great strides in limiting the ill effects that the MS patient suffers, but there is still a lot to learn before a cure is found.

Here is what you can do to help. MS Bike rides are not that uncommon and most of you have probably seen ads for rides in your area. My suggestion is to go to the MS webpage or check your local bike shop to see who is putting together a team and support them in any way you can. Better yet, dust off that trusty 10 speed in your garage and start your own team and feel good knowing that you contributed a weekend of your time and a little sweat to a worthy cause.

So, for to the team members of Mary’s Mashers, have a safe ride and know that I’m pulling for you from afar, even if the only thing I can do is pray for flat roads and no headwind. Once this whole Iraq thing is done and over with, maybe next year I could lend my bike mechanic and photography skills to the team. I’ll even offer to ride, assuming that I still remember how to pedal a bike after being a pedestrian for over a year. :)

If you are interested in learning more about MS, check out the
National MS Society Web Page.

If you are interested in learning more about Mary and her band of crazy cyclist, visit Mary's Mashers.

28 September 2007


I am getting old.

I know that I’m older than most of the Captains here (and maybe even a few of the Majors) but I try not to act like it. It’s hard not to when I overhear conversations from young twenty-somethings about how they were born in the 80’s around the same time I was trying to find where Mrs. LaChance’s math class was at Franklin Jr. High. It is a challenge to relate to the younger folks sometimes, although the fact that I just made a statement like that makes me feel like I’ve prematurely joined the ranks of coffin dodgers and silverbacks.

We got to leave work a little early last night because of the bi-monthly “bug spraying”. During this happy event they kick everyone out of the offices early and lay down a fine layer of poison to keep the building ant free for a few days. Normally I’m not too excited about bugs nor am I particularly excited about my keyboard coated with anti bug juice. However, I do get excited at the prospect of going back to the trailer earlier than 9pm. After tromping through the door and kicking off my uniform, I plopped down on my Texas folding chair to relax and read a recently delivered magazine before the night slipped away. After delving through pages of adventure travel essays and hiking gear reviews, I decided to call it a night and strolled into the bathroom to give the chompers a good brushing. It was then that I noticed in the mirror, sticking out like someone had jammed the “spear of aging” into the top of my head, was a long white hair. Now, I’ve had gray hair before and it wasn’t very dramatic, but this one was Casper white and considerably longer than the rest of my black mop, as if the guy who last cut my hair purposely cut around it out of respect for the follicle’s age. I couldn’t help but stand there, toothpaste foam gathering in the corners of my mouth, and gape at the horror, as if my youth was raising a flag of surrender high in the air ensuring that my old eyes would take notice.

Iraq is aging me.

The last birthday I spent overseas was when I was three as a wee lad in Korea (no, I’m not from the North!). Granted, my birthday is still a few months away, but that doesn’t explain why I’m feeling particularly old today. I think reading about these young people who climb Everest 8 times before they are 30 and knock out 10 Triathlons a year just for the fun of it made me see that I’m not getting any younger, mainly because I have not completed either one of these events, not even once (nor do I need to). I thought that maybe the pressure of being deployed to a war zone would be a major contributor to my anguish. Things are stressful here, but in the big scheme of things, they aren’t that bad. Sure, we have some pretty tense situations (people trying to blow you up can be a wee bit taxing on the old nerves) but it’s not anything like trying to soothe a sick screaming infant or maneuvering through Dallas traffic at rush hour. Plus, things have been fairly quiet (September has set a personal record for the fewest IDF since I’ve been here). So why now did my hair decide that last night was a great time to signal a blatant reminder that I’m no spring chicken?

I know it’s just banter and there are people older than I who will scoff at my rant, tell me things like “You ain’t that old” and spout similarly sarcastic sayings, but I do feel older today, as if I went to bed last night as a thirty-something captain in the Army and woke up as Rip Van Winkle. I think the only thing I got going for me is that I’m still the youngest person on my team, but seeing as how two of them have already retired once and 3 of them are grandfathers, it doesn’t give me much consolation.

In other news, today is the 5 month mark of the deployment. Only 7 more to go. This is cause for celebration. Tonight at dinner, I think I will eat as many cookies as my belly can take. Best do that kind of daring stuff now while I still have my original teeth and it doesn’t interfere with my blood pressure medicine.

27 September 2007

For post 150, I give you monkeys

If you wander over to the other side of my building you might find Kevin and Brendan hard at work doing whatever it is that they do over there. Usually I just see Brendan doing crossword puzzles and Kevin typing his girlfriend on Hotmail, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are working. In fact, they are two of the busiest captains in the building because contrary to popular belief, shamming is hard work! Anyway, if you happen to stumble into their section you may see a small portion of Kevin’s tiny desk dedicated to the miracle of life. No, it’s not a diorama of fornicating sheep or a copy of the “Chicken Book”. Instead, it is a small tank filled with greenish water and sea monkeys.

Not something you want to cuddle with

While I’ve always heard of sea monkeys, throughout my short life I’ve never had the fortune to be the proud owner of a batch of them. I’ve had dogs, cats, fish and currently I have crabs (the hermit kind, not the ones requiring ointment). I’ve never really saw the fascination with having a bunch of brine shrimp in a bucket. They don’t fetch, you can’t pet them, they’re not colorful, they don’t do tricks, and they aren’t exactly what you’d call the cutest of critters to have as a pet. So why is it that I am fascinated by these things? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I am perplexed by the fact that you can order these Artemia NYOS (their official name) through the mail and the only action required is to “just add water”. Voila! Instant pets! No walking, house training, hairballs to clean, or picking up poop (by catapulting the turds into the neighbor’s yard). Plus, they are guaranteed to live 2 years! Let’s see the SPCA give a guarantee like that to Fluffy! Just feed according to the directions and replace the water when it gets down to a certain point. That’s it. I was surprised to see how fast they grew, although I am disappointed that they won’t grow big enough to be dipped in cocktail sauce. Kevin has thinned the ranks a little by overfeeding them, but that just means the hearty ones remain. I call it, survival of the fattest.

It’s illegal to have pets here according to General Order #1. Of course this order covers a LOT of things that one is not allowed to do in a war zone, but soldiers tend to bend them slightly to make life not-so-Spartan. One way to keep in touch with the normal life back home is to take care of the wildlife, unless it’s bugs in which case we spray them with every known pesticide short of DDT and flame throwers. I’ve talked about P-Cat and Blanca the dog before, the FOB mascots, and I can see how these critters could carry a disease or give you a nasty gash, but I’m not sure how the monkeys fall in the mix. I know of no historical reports of someone contracting scabies from a sea monkey or someone losing a digit while dipping their finger into the tank. The website says that they are totally harmless to humans and can’t survive out of the brackish water, also known as “the formula”. Kind of like general officers that can’t survive outside of their air conditioned armored trucks.

26 September 2007


I’m feeling betrayed. I got off work a little early so that I could pick up my laundry before they closed and came upon a sight that made me feel sad and angry at the same time. After 5 months you think you know someone pretty well but after today, I realize that I really didn't know them at all. Granted, we only shared a few meals together and our physical relationship was nothing more than some innocent petting, but I thought we had something special. Obviously I was wrong as I stumbled upon a scene that I was not suppose to see. It was the sight of another man feeding my cat! P-Cat, the four-legged feline that I’ve been giving treats to was eating canned chicken while another man scratched behind his ears. What’s up with that?! Ungrateful ingrate!

Okay, so I really wasn’t upset. In fact, it was good to see that there are other folks taking care of him because he is a good cat, which is hard for me to admit since I’m not the biggest cat lover. I’m more of a dog person. Dogs are friendlier, they do tricks, they know how to show affection without being aloof like a cat, plus they taste much better.

Picture of the T-shirt Kevin gave me as a gift...very appropriate.

23 September 2007

Where's the sweat?

This morning I left my trailer to start my normal trek to “work” when I noticed something peculiar in the air. I walked a little further and strained my senses in search of the difference. Was it the smell? No. My nose told me that the place still stank of porta-potties and burning trash. Was it the amount of light? Well, my eyes told me that it was a little darker than usual, but there was something else that I couldn’t put my finger on. That’s when I realized that I had walked more than 100 feet in my body armor and my pistol belt, which normally acts as a makeshift damn for the river of sweat that flows down the small of my back, was not sopping wet. By golly... it was cooler out! In the shade of the palace with a cool breeze finding it’s way through the trailers, it was significantly cooler out. Where was the normal blast of dusty air normally blowing this time of day? I consulted the digital thermometer I keep on my assault pack to see if this was just delirious. Sure enough, it stated that the temp was a brisk 79 degrees. Holy frijoles Batman! I don’t think that in the last 5 months I’ve been here that the mercury ever dropped below 80, and now here I was experiencing a cool fall morning in Iraq. Was it just last Thursday that I was reveling in the fact that it felt like summer? I think fall is my next favorite season to spring. The brunt of the summer sun makes way for cooler air and you can look forward to finally turning off the A/C and sleeping with the window open (although you only get about 10 of these days a year in Texas). Fall also reminds me of college. In my four years in upstate New York, I never really appreciated the beautiful surroundings of my campus until my last year. It was then I noticed the colors of autumn touching the tips of the mountains around mid September and avalanche down in sunset hues to the Hudson below around mid October. What I wouldn’t give to see a real tree right now. The IZ is void of a lot of vegetation with the exception of the palm-like date tree, and the dead palm-like date tree. The temp did top out today at 109 which is still considered a summer day in Texas, but I’m giddy at the idea that they will drop more and more as the days roll on. This reminiscing of seasons makes me realize I need some better topics to write about instead of the weather.

Okay, so not only was today the first day of the autumnal equinox, it was my first official half day off. We are suppose to get one day a week where we leave work at noon and not have to return to the prison of our desks until the following morning. This is the leadership’s plan on reducing stress around here and I’m all for it. The sad thing is that I pretty much wasted the day. In fact, I didn’t get to leave work until 3:30 pm and when I did return to my trailer, I didn’t do much of anything; not because there wasn’t stuff to do, but never before had I this much time to myself and I was a little befuddled as to where to spend this new allowance of freedom. I wandered over to the internet trailer (still refuse it to call it the ‘internet cafĂ©’ until they start serving some coffee there) to do some surfing. I’ve got a vacation in need of some serious research and bills that I’ve put a little too much trust in the auto-pay feature from my online bank to take care. I ended up spending a LOT of time over there which normally happens when I get sucked into the web. The piles of laundry in my room didn’t get done, the letters I planned on writing are still in the planning phase and the books I want to read have a fine layer of dust on them (which really isn’t that big of a deal seeing as how everything in my room has a fine layer of dust on it). No matter though because for a few hours today I didn’t have to make a PowerPoint presentation, answer a work phone call or have a field grade ask me a question about how many left handed, blue eyed, Iraqi border guards know how to drive a stick shift and dance the Macarena.

Interesting quote of the day:

“I work from 8am to 10pm every day and I like going to the gym for an hour during the middle of the work day. I think of it as my “time in the yard.”

20 September 2007


Summer has arrived in Iraq! Well, technically it’s felt like summer since we’ve arrived here 145 days ago but today, after a stroll back from a meeting at the embassy, I was struck by an overwhelming “summery” feeling that took me back home for a little bit. It could have been the fragrance of the pink and red flowers popping up on some weird bushes around here that made me think of riding my bike in the wildflowers back home, or it could have been the smell of fresh cut grass that made me miss, of all things, my lawn mower. I suspect the real culprits to my momentary lapse into nostalgia were the sprinklers. They keep the grass growing on the embassy grounds and more importantly they keep it green which is just shy of a miracle in this environment. I would have to say that it's almost unnatural to see so much green grass here, as if we were screwing with mother nature (kind of like breeding hairless cats). This accomplishment of course requires the constant movement of an assortment of sprinklers that are dragged to and fro across the manicured lawns by Iraqis in blue/violet jump suits (think Umpaloomas, but taller). Not only does it keep the vegetation alive, it gives off that “summer dew” smell that can only be replicated on an early morning run in June through a subdivision after the sprinklers have just watered the lawns. I would have given anything to rip off my armor and go frolic in the water (yes, I said frolic) but that might not be deemed appropriate behavior in these parts by a uniformed military officer. Besides, the Blackwater guys probably would have ventilated me if I got too close to their Suburbans.

"Get off the grass or I'll pop a cap in ya!"

Humorous quote of the day:

"I don't like my meat all stacked in one place!"

In reference to a captain's sandwich construction preferance in which she blurted out to members of other tables around her.

18 September 2007

Power Point Ranger

I think I might have just made a slide show presentation that will get me fired.

I’ve lamented before about the countless PowerPoint slides I create. I’ll have you know that I do them unwillingly. They shackle me to my fiberboard desk with heavy chains and tell me that I must pump out slide after slide of graphs and charts to appease the brass. No potty breaks or time for non-value distractions like food unless the slides are approved by the chief of staff. Colors must match, bullets must align, and graphs better tell a damn good story or else it’s back to my crooked chair to try again to create the perfect slide that will win this war. Actually, rumor has it that hidden within the 100 GB share drive of the office there exists a PowerPoint show that explains in detail how to achieve victory in Iraq and send us all home early. One day Tommy thought he discovered this Grail of all presentations but alas, it lacked the supporting spreadsheet data! As of this date, we don’t have the perfect slideshow, therefore we must toil to satisfy the generals’ desires to sacrifice reams of A4 paper and drain the color printer of it’s lifeblood. It’s a sad existence and it makes the days seem pointless. A life that can be measured by the number of slide shows made in a day is a sad life indeed.

Today’s PowerPoint session began just as they always do; a field grade officer tasked by a general officer to give them a status brief grabs the first captain within their reach (that would be me) to do their bidding. My topic for the day was a comparison of what my shop and another shop does to see what areas we overlap our efforts. As far as topics go, it was a pretty good one due to the fact that I had just asked my boss that very same question the other day. So, I start inserting text boxes and block arrows in order to “paint the picture” that the boss would understand. In the midst of this transition frenzy, I discover that there are a lot of areas where two people from different sides of the military are doing the same job. It developed into a perfect picture of redundancy and that is not a pretty picture. Realizing that the news was not good, I stopped to show my boss to ensure that I was giving the right information. He assured me that it was correct and gave me an explanation that made me pause my frantic mouse clicking; the big boss wanted this brief to determine where he was going to “cut the fat” and make the decision to dump my section’s responsibility onto another command. Whoa! Hold the phone! Did this mean I was making the last briefing of my military career? Would they discover that there was some sorry sap in another section that could do my job thereby releasing me from the PowerPoint yoke that was holding me back from getting out of here? Did this mean I could go home early? End of mission anyone? Wooohooo!

I think through the squinting of my slanty eyes he could see the premature celebration in my mind and quickly squashed my hopes by informing me that I was not in fact released from the slideshow hell that I was living. If anything, they would just reorganize the section and I would be here for my allotted tour time set by Uncle Sam (and most likely do more slide shows). Best case scenario would be for them to put in me in some short-handed section to help out and stay busy until it was time for me to leave. Worse case scenario would have all of the work from both sections put in my lap and have me do the job in some remote location with more frequent mortar fire (and no Captain Mafia to hang with). I’m positive that the actual outcome will be something in between the two extremes, but only time will tell. Unfortunately, time is one thing I have a lot of.

I’ll follow the advice of a good Marine by the name of Gordon and keep my sanity by being flexible.

Semper Gumby

17 September 2007

Monday blahs

Any time you go back to work after spending a few days on vacation is not something you look forward to. In fact, it downright sucks. The piles of work on your desk, the tons of email to filter through, the off looks from people who ask if you had a good time but are secretly upset at the fact that they were forced to pull your load for the last week while you were drinking beer someplace free of incoming rounds. After tasting a bit of freedom, returning to the confines of the IZ is a bit depressing. The walk to the trailer seems a little longer, the food in the DFAC is a little blander and the body armor (now with all of the gear strapped back on it) is a lot heavier. I know it will pass after a few days of getting back into the swing of things, but it still sucks. I’ll keep my eye focused on the day to day operations and keep my 2 week leave at the end of the year as my goal to work for.

Ramadan started a few days ago but I didn’t really notice much when I was on pass. However, here in the IZ I am witness to more individuals of the Islamic faith and I interact with them on a daily basis. The biggest visual indicator of the start of Ramadan is the sleeping Iraqis around the bases. It’s not uncommon to find a row of blue jumpsuit clad individuals racking out under a date tree in the heat of the day. I see them lounging about and quite frankly, I’m jealous. I would LOVE to nap during the hottest part of the day! But, after you find out that they are napping because they haven’t had any food since sunrise and are lacking the energy to do a lot of manual labor, you tend to recheck your envy. Did I also mention that they cannot have water? Might not sound like much, but go park your butt in the heat of 112 degree sunlight for a few hours and see how long it takes before your mouth feels like it has a sock stuck in it (interestingly enough, the word “Ramadan” is derived from the Arabic for no rations and intense heat). Not only must they refrain from eating or drinking from sun up to sun down, they must also obtain from lying, stealing, lust, greed, gossip and sex. They do this for three 10 day periods which equates to a month of self reflecting making this the most blessed month of the Islamic year. They can feed themselves when it’s dark out which is why most of the Iraqis we work with will come into work tired or lethargic from having to get up early or stay up late in order to eat.

In an attempt to be culturally sensitive, the military has sent out emails to the masses informing us of the ins and outs of Ramadan so that we may better understand the religious rituals that the members of our host nation observe. It is rude to chew gum, drink water or eat in front of folks who are fasting for their religion. To me, that seems like common sense, just like it is impolite to wave a jelly doughnut in front of the cast of a Richard Simmons work out video (and quite possibly dangerous). We are also suppose to be sensitive to the fact that they could be a bit irritable due to lack of sustenance which again is understandable because I myself get a little cranky when my stomach is grumbling from a missed meal. It will prove to be a trying month to deal with our Iraqi counterparts to make headway on the whole “transition” thing, but I think we’ll get through it with a little patience. Okay, maybe a LOT of patience.

Now if I can only get higher ups of the Christian faith to adopt the whole “nap for a month” gig...

Interesting overheard conversation of the day:

Person 1: “This mint toothpick is very good.”
Person 2: “Would you say that there is a party in your mouth and everyone is invited?”
Person 3: “I don’t want to have a party in my mouth.”

16 September 2007

IRR on R&R

As with all vacations, R&R was short lived. Sure, we snuck in under the radar to get a longer “zero” day than most, but 4+ days is still not enough fully recharge the batteries. I’d love to give all the gory detail of the “spectacular” time I had on my pass, but for the most part, we aren’t suppose to talk about the things we do on pass or where we went. And besides that, after I wrote down all the things I did this past week, the list looked pretty weak in terms of exciting events in a foreign country (unless karaoke and mall shopping are on your top ten favorite things to do on vacation). Of note, I lost a game of doubles ping-pong, but I think my ego was hurt more by the fact that my defeat was dished out by two girls than by the fact that I disgraced my heritage by losing at a sport I should excel at. I made up for it in the 9 hole put-put golf by putting a hurting on the 5 folks who dared to challenge me. There were no windmills or extreme water hazards to contend with, but there was a sand-trap or two (imagine that...an abundance of sand). The one fun thing we did was a boat ride to the middle of the Persian Gulf for a morning of water-sports. This included chugging out to a sandbar (that we could not swim to) near a ship wreck (that we were not allowed near) to ride jet skis (that we could not ride together or cross paths with on another) and take a ride on a ski boat (no skies, just the “superdog” inflatable boat tow). We were excited about spending time on the water, especially since our pass was taking place in a climate harsher than Iraq. After sweating our rear’s off on the slow journey out to the bay and seeing that cool turquoise sea beckoning us to take a plunge (no taking plunges from the upper deck of the boat), we soon discovered that there is a reason that there aren’t a plethora of resorts along the Persian Gulf. There just doesn’t seem to be a high demand for vacation spots on hot dirty water that stings your eyes and throat. Despite the burning salty ooze and the fact that the toilet from the boat dumped right into the water we were swimming in, it didn’t stop us from donning life vests (no swimming without life vests) to escape the heat. Besides, we had to do something to bide our time since they only brought two jet skis (only one worked at any given time) and one ski boat that could pull three folks on the “jumbodog” (no excessive bouncing on the jumbodog). When we weren’t waiting in line for a jet ski (we were informed that they were 700 horse power jet skis which kinda freaked me out until I found that the lack of translation skills mistook cubic inches for horse power) we lounged on the deck of the boat and ate kabobs. I took advantage of my waterproof camera and took a fare share of photos from the water level. Not sure any are really worth posting, but the novelty of taking pictures in the water was worth the purchase. Overall, it was the most relaxing part of the pass and it ended by lunchtime, too quick for us to get a full day’s worth of enjoyment out of it.

The Jumbo Dog

Besides the water sports adventure, we didn’t do much else. We lounged by the pool, we ate at Chili’s, we shopped at a mall or two, we watched football and some of us even drank a beer or three. Some even got spa treatments and massages that bordered on groping, but that didn’t stop them from making a second appointment. We did fierce battle with drunk "joes" and fended off "creepy winky guy" from assaulting members of our gang. I didn’t get as much sleep as I would have liked, but that wasn’t bad since the entire time was relatively relaxing. I don’t think it would have been as fun without the group I went with. It was nice to hang out with fellow IRR captains outside of the DFAC environment and commiserate about being deployed. They say that misery loves company and I think it would have been a miserable trip without the captains I went with.

The mafia returned to the IZ tired after a long day and a half of travel and we spent the better part of the day recouping. Never mind the fact that we should have at least went to work for part of the day, we made the choice (wise or not) to sleep in, do laundry, and readjust to being in a combat zone again. It was necessary pass-recovery time and I’m sticking with that story in case anyone wants to challenge me about it.

Yes, the IRR was here

Interesting quote from R&R:

“They don’t have cold water here. Every shower is f***ing hot! Even the toilets are supplied by nothing but hot water. I can’t even take a crap without my ass sweating!”

13 September 2007

Where am I?

Humidity sucks. When you grow up in Michigan, you get use to the blanket of sticky air that surrounds you on a day to day basis, although it's not as bad as Houston or Florida. Thank goodness that most of Iraq is just hot and lacks any real moisture in the air. Today, however I’m not in Iraq. I’m someplace humid. After stepping off the plane last night into what felt like 90% humidity, the thickness of the heat was equivalent to punch in the face and a knee to the groin. It’s hot, sweaty, and I’ve never been happier to have my clothes stick to me.

Today I am writing from Bizzaroland. Where is that? Well, I’m not exactly sure. I never really excelled at geography and most of the trip was done in a windowless transport under the cover of darkness. In fact, Bizzaroland isn’t the real name of the place either. It is the moniker I’ve given it because the environment is so opposite from the dwelling that I’ve spent the last 135 days of my life roaming through. I don’t have to clear my weapon before eating my meals, I don’t have the constant drone of helicopters shaking my trailer, and I stop and gawk at people wandering freely outside sans weapon and armor. The fact that I am wearing civilian clothes as I write this makes me feel like I’m in a world that, although vaguely familiar, is not where I should be and it scrambles my senses to think about it. There should be alarms going off and distant booms and people scurrying about in armored vehicles. Instead, the only alarms I hear are from the alarm clocks of the fellow officers in my room, the only booms are from cannons of college football teams on the big screen TV signaling a touchdown, and I have yet to see an armored vehicle in the sea of civilian SUVs and gators. There is a sense of easiness here that is hard to describe. It’s like a taste of freedom. Bizzaroland feels like it is half a world away from Iraq, but it also feels like I’m light years from home. Let’s call it purgatory, with beer.

The journey here was, as always, an adventure; multiple stops in hot locations waiting on finicky air travel and complicated convoy connections. If I haven’t made it clear before, let me reiterate by saying that travel is not very convenient here. There are horror stories of individuals stranded at airbases across the country for days and weeks while they manifested on choppers and fixed wing that never showed, although I believe that if I was stuck here for more than the 4 days I’m suppose to, I wouldn’t call it a bad thing. The best part of the travel was the fact that I stripped my body armor down to just the bare minimum; vest, throat protector, groin protector, front and rear plates and my first aid pouch. After ridding myself of 11 magazine holders, GPS, hydration system and a basic load (plus) of rifle and pistol ammunition, the weight of the armor more closely resembles that of a heavy sweater than of a tungsten and lead life jacket. We only do this for traveling on pass since we are not allowed to have weapons during decompression, but after wearing my “battle rattle” for so long, I haven’t given much thought to the amount of weight I lugged around each day until I found myself wearing the naked vest. That alone was worth taking this trip.

I do have to admit that feel a little exposed without my weapon. I know that sounds crazy, especially since I’m in a friendly place with no need to be packing heat. I don’t think I’ll ever voice that concern to the folks around me because most of them would think that I’m being totally ridiculous. It’s just that I’ve had that thing on my leg for the better part of 4 months and I’ve grown rather attached to that hunk of metal (although I haven’t gone as far as to name it yet). Give me a few days here in the relative peace and quiet of Bizzaroland and I’m sure I’ll rid myself of this silly anxiety.

The “captain mafia” are travel weary, but after a few hours of precious sleep, we’re ready to get this whole relaxation thing started. There are pools to lounge by, football games to watch, different places to eat (rumor has it that there is a restaurant here) and alcohol to consume (on a limited basis of course). After 135 days of Iraqi deployment under our belts, I wonder if we’ll remember how to react to the relative peace of Bizzaroland? Maybe a better question is, is Bizzaroland ready for us?

The Captain Mafia waiting on transportation

06 September 2007


New policy handed down from the commanding general (paraphrased):

Battle fatigue and stress from working and living in a combat environment is an issue for all leaders. In order to reduce the risk of fatigue, directors of each section will now implement a plan to give each individual a minimum of a half day off (from noon until the next morning). The ultimate goal is to give every member of the command two half days or one full day off, but this will be dependent on mission requirements. Individuals need to take advantage of the various MWR opportunities available on the base. It is my intent to make each director develop a plan to reduce stress by giving more free time to their subordinates through the parameters of my guidance.

I learned of this new policy a few days ago and was looking forward to seeing it in action instead of just on paper. Little did I know that in the 6 days it took to get from the big man to our sections that it would turn into something totally different. Instead of getting our normal 1 half day off each week (we don’t have to be in until noon) and some leeway for church, now some of us ONLY get one half day off a week. Period. No more sleeping in. No more splitting the week up with a morning (or two) to yourself. So, effectively, in order to reduce fatigue, they are giving us LESS free time to do things like read a book, wash some laundry, go to the crappy PX to buy hygiene items, watch a movie or write letters home. I don’t understand that. Now I understand that we are in a combat zone and it’s not suppose to be a picnic. Bad guys don’t have banker’s hours which is why we work from 6 or 7 in the morning to 9 or 10 at night (sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, most of the time longer). Plus, our job might not be as physically demanding every day as those out doing patrols and kicking in doors, but even those guys get down time to recuperate from the daily grind (and it’s more than a half day a week).

I know I’m just complaining. Sometimes I wonder what I would actually do with a full day off. The thought of it is so monumental that my little brain can’t quite grasp the concept. It reminds me of a T-shirt I saw in Mackinac City, MI when I was visiting some friends last summer. It was a black shirt with a skull and crossbones on it and it stated in big white letters:


Imagine walking into work tomorrow and having your boss call you into their office. Then imagine your boss telling you that he doesn't like the way a particular project is going and would like you to make it better and would like a briefing at the end of the day on how you are going to accomplish this task. No other guidance besides "make it better" and sends you on your merry way. So, you go back to your cubicle or office and try to do just that. You brainstorm it, you ask co-workers for their advice, maybe even do some statistical analysis to develop multiple courses of action. After skipping lunch and drinking too much coffee, you return to your boss and say that this is how you are going to make the project better. Your boss studies your report, critiques it thoroughly, and sends you on your way for another try. Obviously you didn't get it right. So, you pause and ponder what you did wrong. You need to ask your boss for some guidance, which he replies "make it better" and again sends you on your way, but this time you're not so merry. You re-look at your report to scrutinize any possible mistakes. Where was there room for improvement? What did he actually want and how are you going to make it "better"? You scrub your numbers, check your reasoning, and call home to tell the family that you'll be late for dinner. You finish up another report and are confident that you have indeed come up with a plan to make this failing project succeed. Again, your boss looks at stack of color slides, spreadsheets and graphs and listens to your recommendation as you look at the clock speed past the time you would normally go home. After a brief once-over, he hands the pile of paperwork to you and says that it's not what he was looking for.

"Make it better," is his only response. You are baffled now. You are hungry and confused as to what he means.

You ask yourself, "How do I know what the boss wants if he doesn't give me some sort of direction? How late am I going to have to stay until I satisfy his request?" You start to doubt your ability to do your job and wonder how in the hell you are going to make your boss happy. So you go back to the drawing board and do it all again, chasing your ideas in hopes that you will come up with a solution that will make things "better".

Welcome again to the world of a staff officer in Iraq.

Maybe it's not as bad as I try to make it sound. We do have overall guidance of what we are suppose to be doing here, and that is to make the Iraqis stand on their own feet and run their country. You can get political on me and argue whether or not we as the coalition made things better or worse. I'm not going to engage in that argument because I am not here to debate. I'm here to do a job. It's a thankless job done by many people before me who sacrificed to finish a task started by their predecessors. They handed that task off to me, just as I will hand over my task to some unsuspecting individual after me. I'm not building schools to educate the Iraqi youth or constructing hospitals to tend to their sick and injured. I'm not patrolling the streets to keep religious violence from occurring. I'm not even here to promote democracy or freedom. I'm here to do a job with little guidance and a lot of expectations. I'm not alone either. There are countless others like me who slave over computers, compile data, run convoy missions and engage in epic conversations with Iraqis so that the one or two individuals with any sort of real decision making power can do just that; make a decision. The amount of money we spend each day for huge staffs of military and contract workers to crunch numbers and do research just so a general somewhere can decide what color uniform the Iraqis should get is almost criminal. But we do it, day in and day out. It's our job.
People tell us that we'll be part of history. That our actions will shape the future of this country, of the Middle East, and of the world. They tell us that we are making progress. It's difficult to see that. I'm not saying that progress doesn't exist here. If you look hard enough, you can find the small nuggets of success in the mire of failures and you hold onto them to keep your sanity. People before you and around you put a lot of effort into making the small improvements you see today and you don't want to discount their efforts. You don't want to let the work they did fail, so you try to push through the frustration and move forward. You remind yourself that you, while in service of your country, are trying to help the Iraqis defend their own country. As an IRR call back, I try to convince myself that they called me off the bench to do something good and I'm going to do my damnedest to do just that. But today is just one of those days that I just can't see it (I seem to have a lot more of these kind of days lately). My ability to realize the worth in it all is clouded by the BS, the lack of guidance, and dealing with the frustrations of those around me (not to mention my own frustrations). I'm sure I'll go back to my trailer, crawl into bed, and feel much better when I wake up tomorrow after a short night's rest. The two things that are getting me through this right now is the fact that I go on pass soon and that I have some wonderful people back in the states that are sending me love and support on almost a daily basis. If it wasn't for the latter, I think I might just conveniently miss my flight back from my pass destination. Okay, maybe I wouldn't, but it sure is tempting.

So, in a effort to try and cheer myself up, I'm listening to Ben Folds "Army" on my computer at work. We're probably not suppose to be listening to music here, but I'm rebelling.

P.S. Don't send stuff over here if it is packaged in a box like this.

03 September 2007

Labor Day

Back home, today would be the far right bookend weekend of summer. What started off with Memorial Day weekend would now be winding down as kids go back to school and folks up north close up their pools before the leaves of autumn started falling. I have a lot of good memories of shutting down the season by trying to wear shorts as long as possible, as if exposed knees would help prolong the summer break from school. Its a tradition that my brother still continues to this day. I have lots of other memories of this weekend that are still hard to let go, but none of them matter today for its just another 24 hours in the sandbox. I'll just chalk this one up to another holiday lost in Iraq.

From the Department of Labor website:

"Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883.

In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a "workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country. "

Today, I think I’ll celebrate by doing some labor.

Happy Labor Day everyone.

02 September 2007

Appalachian who?

We are a little behind here in Iraq. Actually, we're ahead but the world back home is roughly 9 hours behind us, which means that news travels to us a little late. This also means that college football scores arrive in the middle of the night instead of in the middle of Saturday afternoon. Congratulations need to go out to U of M for their victory over Appalachian State. Go Wolverines! Oh sure, the score board said that the Mountaineers won the game, by points, but don’t overlook who the real winner is here (and that would be Michigan). The Michigan coach successfully executed his plan to psyche out the other teams in the Big 10 by feigning losing to the Mountaineers, a team not even in their division. When teams like the Buckeyes or Northwestern stroll into Ann Arbor and think that they are going to chalk up an easy win, that’s when the Wolverines will suit up their REAL team instead of the 3rd string they had playing against Appalachian State. It’s pure genius by coach Carr and his psychological warfare campaign will pay big dividends later in the season.

I didn’t get to watch the game because I didn’t venture over to the embassy to see it on the big screen. Plus, it was very late here by the time the game was televised and I was probably talking to my girlfriend or my parents. More than likely, I was sleeping. I know that if I was a die hard Wolverine fan I would have set my alarm to wake up and watch it, but I, like most U of M fans, figured this would just be a slaughter to get the boys ready for the season. Now, as I read the news today, I’m very glad to have slept in to miss the beating for I’m sure that today is a sad day for the residents of Ann Arbor. As much as I don’t want to see it, I hope they’ll replay the game on the TVs at the mess hall or at the MWR building some time today. My reason for witnessing the loss is to hope that it’s just a big mistake and someone is trying to pull a late April Fool's day joke on all of us deployed Wolverine fans. Hey, I can dream, can't I?

In other news, Army got beat by Akron. How can anyone lose to team called the Zips? I would be upset, but I’ve become callus to Army football losing games. I miss the days of the Black Knights actually winning. I don’t ever expect the Army team to win a bowl game, but it would be nice to at least have a winning season. Let’s hope they beat Navy.