Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Is this the end for Pod 7, Row 3? ...

Stay tuned to find out ... new developments every day! I might actually have a real home soon!! ... Or, I might remain here until the end of time ... wow, deep.
-Grease out.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Back to School ... with Gifts!

Note my high quality prison compund of a home above ...

We had our first day of class today … I forgot how painful ‘death by powerpoint’ can be. The info wasn’t that bad (I hope y’all understand that I can’t go into ANY type of specifics about it), but the instructional style needs work. I guess I’m a bit hard on them, having done instructional tours before, but is it so hard to look at your audience while speaking? Also, the Army has this strange aversion to introductions at the beginning of a lesson. Maybe it’s a difference in philosophy, but we were always taught to introduce yourself and give a very short background on who you are. It makes all the difference in the world when I know that the person speaking has some experience relevant to the topic. I’m not saying that you need to have years of combat experience to give a lecture, but it does let me know whether I can ask you more specific questions, or if I should seek out another SME (Subject Matter Expert). Other than that, it was good information … I just don’t know where I’m going to use it (still no status on my eventual job – at this point, it’s becoming comical – people ask, “So, where are you going?” and my answer remains the same: no idea). Maybe they’ll decide they don’t need me and send me home! … and maybe I’ll win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes without submitting an entry. As a postscript to this, I sat through a class today where they went over ‘instructional skills and techniques’ (this to a room full of folks, most of whom have been instructors before). The instructor turned around and read the slides to us with his back turned … go figure.

I did have one very positive note to end the day, my wife sent me two large packages from home! Not knowing where I will wind up has made care packages hard. I have the temporary address that my wife used, but I can’t give it out to the rest of the family (including my sister-in-law in Colorado who says she’s baking at a feverish pace – I need more gym time) because I don’t know if I’ll be here next week! Most of the stuff my wife sent were the things I had staged for her to ship to me so I wouldn’t have to carry them (toiletries, some items to make my room seem like home, etc.), but she did throw a few surprises in with the boxes. It’s nice to get stuff from home from time to time, and she’s great at making each box personal. This while she’s wrestling with two kids in the belly and two kids ransacking the house … I think I’ll go give her a call … the blog can wait for today. Until tomorrow (or the next day or the next day) …
-Grease out.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Strange things are afoot at the Circle K ...

I finally started class today, so I haven't had time to compose a post for today (that and random sunspots (or some other natural disaster) prevented me from making any contact with the outside world yesterday. More to come. Stay tuned for some VERY important words from our sponsor!
-Grease out.

Farewells and Dispensations ...

February 25, 2007 –

I have decided that the blog will be my ‘cruise hobby.’ I’ve always believed that you need a hobby of some sort while you’re on these deployments, mostly to maintain sanity, but in some way to improve yourself. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it’s a good way to approach these extended absences from home. My first deployment, I was the webmaster for the squadron website, so I taught myself basic to intermediate HTML. That was one of those occasions where I did something to expand myself. My most recent deployment … we played video games … Halo 2 to be exact … a lot … every night. I don’t know if it ‘expanded my horizons,’ but it sure was a nice way to put the day behind you. That, and I became quite the fearsome force with that sniper rifle (maybe, subconsciously, I was training for this deployment). I realized this morning (as I was uploading cool pictures to my blog, and making it look somewhat professional) that I’ve always wanted to journal some of my experiences, but have never taken the time (mostly because my handwriting is so atrocious it becomes painful to write – my mom saw me write and thought she had a doctor in the making – instead she got a naval officer – at least I got the white uniform part right). With the digital age upon us, there’s no good reason for me not to document ‘life’s travels.’ I should add that one of my goals every deployment is to get back into good shape, and I’m pretty good about it – it’s that time period between deployments that needs some work (if you listen very quietly, you can hear my wife nodding vigorously right now).

I tend to look at deployments as a series of phases or stepping stones that all deployed military go through during their time away (I already told you about the part where your conversations take on a kind of ‘frat-house’ flavor). I bumped headlong into another of these this morning. As I was walking back to the tent after playing blog-master, I bumped into a couple of my friends over here and asked them what they were doing. They informed me that they were headed to church to, and I quote,”get their worship on.” I was actually embarrassed because, I didn’t even realize it was Sunday. When there is no weekend to speak of, your days become one long string of work-weeks quickly. When I was a young married Catholic, I used to give my wife a hard time about going to church. Our mass was painfully early, and we would usually be up late on Saturday nights doing DINK things (Dual-Income, No Kids). She would drag me there about 75% of the time, but occasionally I won, and we lay in bed for a few extra hours. When you become a father (at least in my case), you revisit the reasons you went to church in the first place (ie. The God part comes back to you when you hold a perfect child in your arms). You also need to be the good role model to these kids you’re raising in the church. Needless to say, I missed mass today. My wonderful Mother-in-Law would tell me that I get the military dispensation (for you non-Catholics, that means you can break some of the church’s rules when you’re dispensed – ie. Meat on Friday during Lent, etc), and tell me not to worry about it (this from the woman who would subject her kids to a blizzard to get to mass on time – or sort of on time). Then my Father-in-Law (the ex-seminarian) would tell us that we are full of crap, and to get to church. Dispensation or not, I feel bad about losing track of the days of the week. I made a point of it on my last deployment to get to mass on Sundays and holy days. I guess I’ll have to figure out some way to remember that it’s Sunday (now that I’ve posted this, my wife will be sending E-mails every Saturday night to remind me – bless her heart).

The first groups of guys are leaving right now to catch planes/helicopters to other bases in Iraq. It’s kind of bittersweet; we’ve been training together for the last month and a half and have become somewhat close. The sad thing is: once they leave, most of us will never see each other again. When it comes time to head to our homes, we’ll travel home from where we’re forward deployed, not from the headquarters we’re at now. I say that it’s kind of bittersweet, and it is … kind of. My years in the Navy have told me one thing, I’ll bump into some of these folks at the most unexpected times in the future. Oh well, enough typing, I’m going to go say my goodbyes to some of the gang. Until tomorrow (or the next day)
-Grease out.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Telephone Blues

February 24, 2007 –

My apologies for the length of the last post, I was typing the comments on the computer while I decided whether or not to actually set up a blog. From here on out, the comments should be more along the lines of one post at a time (No guarantees about frequency, I have a feeling that I will become busy in the coming weeks).

One of the annoying things about being thousands of miles from home is communication. Don’t get me wrong, what we have now is light-years ahead of what our predecessors had (or even what I had on my first deployment). The biggest problem is the unreliability of the communication devices.

Let me give you background. We have four main methods of immediate contact with loved ones at home. The first is the AT&T telephone kiosks. AT&T has been great over the years at making sure there are phones wherever there are troops in the field. We use pre-paid calling cards that can be recharged by our loved ones at home (they offer the best phone rate – around 30¢/minute from Iraq). These are the same cards I used from the ship on previous deployments (utilizing the satellite-based ‘Sailor-Phone’). The AT&T option is easy, but somewhat unreliable. It doesn’t take much for the phone center to lose it’s satellite uplink (more on that later). The second option is E-mail. This is limited by the availability of the computers and the connection speed. I can tell you that in Iraq right now, we are connecting at speeds slower than dial-up. E-mail is nice, but can turn into a frustrating affair. The next two options are relatively new to the deployed theatre: Web-cam chat and VOIP phones. The VOIP (Voice over internet protocol) is awesome when it’s working. The folks at SPAWAR Europe (A unit in the Dept of Defense) have us set up with 3¢/minute rates on a phone that has about the same delay as the AT&T phones (you speak, five seconds later they hear you, etc.). I haven’t seen too many connection problems with the VOIP phones, so this may be the wave of the future. The video chat is novel, but it requires too much bandwidth to be used over here (I did see folks using it in Kuwait, where they have a more robust internet backbone).

The moral of the story is: Don’t EVER get your hopes up about being able to contact home, and be happy when you can. I left you last saying I was going to the phone center to talk to the kids as they got home from school. They don’t usually have too much to say, but I think the most important thing is telling them I love them any chance I can. As I was leaving the tent, I got into a conversation about this very subject and that got me excited about talking to them. I walked over to the phone tent (inside my prison compound of cement) and found out that the phones were out for the night. I sat there for a time and thought of walking the mile in the dark to the VOIP phone center. Intelligence got the better of me and I decided to remain in the safe confines of the tents until first light. I figured getting injured walking in the dark was probably not worth the phone call. One of the many gems they teach in Naval Aviation is: Is the risk worth the reward (ie. Is it worth flying through the thunderstorm just to get home a few hours early?) I decided to skip the reward for a time. So that’s where I am, watching the clock on my computer (I have this cool system clock called ZoneTick that shows time in multiple time zones on my little system tray. Right now it has 13:24 in Baghdad (gotta be military time) and 05:24 in Norfolk (Highlighted in red so I don’t call while they are sleeping) – I guess I’ll have to wait a few hours.

The KBR guys have just entered the tent. They observed us stealing lockers and mattresses from the other unoccupied tents, and decided to outfit our tent with lockers. The problem with that is: there is NO WAY we will fit one locker in here for every bed – we’re squished as it is. These guys don’t seem to have a problem with that, however. They have a work order for 50 lockers to be delivered and they’re going to do it. The tent is starting to look like your home as soon as the movers drop off the last of your stuff. Giant obstructions everywhere – thankfully they didn’t take the full lockers out to put in empty ones. Oh well, I’m going to go observe our contractor friends, just to keep things sane – as if that was an option at this point.
-Grease out.

Greetings From Baghdad

I decided that, this deployment, I would compose my thoughts more like a Weblog rather than an occasional letter (I looked back at the letters from last deployment, and realized that there were a ton of amazing moments that were missed due to my long space between letters). I haven’t decided whether I will E-mail it, or turn it into a regular ‘Blog.’ Several guys I know have ‘blogs’ over here and they find them therapeutic when it comes to relaying the scenes encountered here. With all that said, here we go:

February 17, 2007 –
This is the day we head into country for the first time. It’s kind of a strange feeling, seeing as how my career to this point has been all about avoiding being on the ground in Iraq. We left Camp Virginia, Kuwait around 11AM to head over to Al Asad Air Force Base for the flight. So far this was the best run operation of the entire lot. We didn’t have to wait too long and we boarded our C-130 early. We flew up to BIAP (Baghdad Int’l Airport) in about an hour. The approach is quite amazing. Anyone who’s been in a C-130 can tell you the accommodations are Spartan at best. You have about 15 inches of butt space on a fabric sling. When we’re about 15 miles out (most approaches start around 100 miles) our pilot begins a descent that will take your breath away. The insurgents like to fire small arms at aircraft, so we put the plane in a 60° nose down dive (most of you have never been below a 15° dive). He than begins to turn the plane somewhat wildly to become unpredictable to folks on the ground. We pull out of the dive in just enough time to put the landing gear down and hit the runway. Welcome to the war!

We grabbed our gear, some dinner, and headed to our temporary home at Camp Liberty, Iraq (the Army has such cute names for the camps – Liberty, Victory, Perseverance, Striker, etc). None of us know where we will wind up in Iraq yet, so they put us up at the Army’s version of the Ritz. I’m in a 60 man tent that is surrounded on all sides with 12 foot tall cement barriers. Even the individual tents are separated by barriers. If I walk outside, all I see is cement and gravel, even though my friends are only a few feet away. I guess they do this in case one tent is hit by a mortar, it won’t spread to the other tents. Where the ground isn’t gravel, it’s mud … thick mud. Apparently it’s the rainy season, and the ground doesn’t absorb water well. We ventured through the mud pits to the exchange across the street (1/4 mile) to call home and look around. At this point, spirits are pretty high, if only because we are laughing so hard at the strange situation we are in. Hopefully tomorrow will be dry. Until then.
-Grease out.

February 18, 2007 –
I was finally able to see the area around the tents today (It was dark when we arrived here, and dark in Baghdad is DARK). There isn’t much here except us and construction. We wandered over to the exchange and bought some random things needed for quality of life (an outlet strip that fits the local plugs – thankfully our laptops work without a voltage converter – gotta love the Japanese). We also stopped at the Haji (affectionate term for the locals) Bazaar. You name it, they sell it. We were all looking for the leather shoulder holsters that most folks wear here. The thigh holster is a bit cumbersome, and takes away one of your pockets. Alas, Haji did not have the one I want, so I will look at Camp Victory tomorrow.

We returned to our camp to find our first conflict of the war. It appears that a group of Army soldiers using the same temporary area thinks that the tent with our females in it belongs to them. Picture the sight: Seiko (a female LCDR of Japanese descent, approximately 5 feet tall) facing off in the door of the tent with a 6’5” Army LtCOL. Seiko stands there and informs him that there is no F***ing way that he is entering the tent (this took the Army dude back). One of the problems with the Army is that they are quite inflexible. He was told a tent, and went to take it. Never mind that there are 60-70 empty tents all around our tents, he wants ours. Eventually, our Kung Fu was greater than his Kung Fu (we had a Navy Captain in our back pocket – also, we’re the people that this unit wants to have come help them) so he capitulated and moved his people 12 feet to the left to an empty tent. With that behind us, we’re set to head to the JCCS-1 (Joint CREW Composite Squadron One – the Navy command I work for) headquarters building tomorrow morning to find out our jobs. I really have no preference as to which job I get, but I’d love to stay near Baghdad or head North towards Mosul (the Kurds like us). My sister keeps joking that I should head South to where the Polish Regiments are doing their part for the coalition. I would have to brush up on my rudimentary Polish – I can ask you if you speak Polish, but after that I can’t respond. Wish me luck.
-Grease out.

February 19, 2007 –
I found out late yesterday that I would be one of the lucky folks (not) who will have to wait an extra week before we start training. The picked the folks who have to get right to their jobs to relieve someone to go this week. This leads me to believe that my job will be with one of the surge units that has not arrived yet. I always hypothesized that it was not a coincidence that we all received orders when we did. I think this surge was on the minds of the war planners for some time. That being said, I still have no idea who I’ll be working for or where. I’m not as concerned as some of the others, I’ll find out when I find out. Until then, I’ll hang out this week.
Today is my son’s fourth birthday. He’s an amazing kid. He has this ability to find joy in almost anything. He’s just as happy playing by himself as with the rest of us. If I was there today, I’m sure he’d drag me upstairs to help him build a new and fascinating world for Thomas the Tank Engine and friends. My wife and I really have given him too much of the Thomas stuff, but we have as much fun playing with it as he does, so it’s kind of like a family toy. I truly hope he is able to forget this part of his life where I was gone, I hate missing birthdays. It’s only a day, but I know he’s still waking up wondering if I’m there or not.

The first group went off to class today, while the rest of us went to Al Faw Palace to get our ID badges. You would not believe this place. The opulence this place has (in stark contrast to the living conditions of Saadam’s people) is amazing. The artistry and stonework leaves the U.S. in the dust. The fact that this was constructed on the backs of a starving people makes our job here all the more real.

Okay, after a slight break, I have SOME idea of my job here. The placement guy for JCCS-1 came by with a job list for everyone … except me. He read off my name and said, “see me.” Apparently, they have yet to decide between two jobs for me, because of my somewhat unique skillset. They will either assign me at MNC-I (Working in the headquarters building – Al Faw Palace) or they will assign me in Qatar. Both jobs sound interesting and challenging at the same time. I think I’d like the Baghdad one better. Somehow, going off to war and spending it in cushy digs in Qatar (beer and hotel rooms) doesn’t seem like the most fulfilling role. Also, if I went to Qatar, I’d lose out on some of my money (Hostile Fire pay and maybe the tax-free altogether). Either way, I’ll be in Baghdad until they figure out where they need me. Oh well, in the words of the immortal Scarlett O’Hara, “Tomorrow IS another day.” This is something to worry about then (Seeing as how tomorrow is a free day for me – maybe I’ll go try to find the gym).
-Grease out.

February 20, 2007 –
Another day, no job for me. I woke up pretty late (around 10) and decided to join some friends on the daily trek to the Exchange complex (I was in need of some soap). It’s definitely one of the stranger exchanges on the planet. It’s built inside of a large tent (like a soft sided Quonset hut) that’s placed inside of a large warehouse-like corrugated metal building. Inside this exchange is a strange collection of electronics, toiletries, and tactical gear. So far I have purchased: A small rug, an Iraqi surge suppressor (for the computer) and quite a few Diet-Cokes (they have American Diet Coke, vice the Haji version they serve at the DFAC (Dining hall).

Okay, I am now a force to be reckoned with. Our supply guy just came by and gave us 9mm ammo for our pistols (It’s a requirement to have a gun and ammo to get into the exchange or DFAC, but we’ve been blowing it off and just taking the gun). With my 30 rounds of ammo, I’m ready to take any objective (LOL, If the war effort comes down to me and my 30 rounds … learn to speak Farsi … we’ve lost at that point). I think now’s a good time to go visit the gym I found earlier (Body-for-Wife has officially begun). More soon.
-Grease out.

February 21, 2007 –
Today started like all of my days in country have so far … wake up, try to come up with something to do. I know it sounds like whining, but it’s frustrating to be here and not have a single thing to do. An admin type from JCCS-1 stopped by to collect records, so I gave her mine. She returned shortly and gave them back to me saying, “I don’t have you on my list.” Okay, strike one. I went over to the gym and bumped into ‘Mule’ (I’ll use callsigns for folks over here, so as not to give away sensitive info). He’s in pretty much the same boat as me … not a thing to do. After we finished our ‘hour of power’ we decided to head to the HQ building after lunch. The biggest problem with being here with no job is: No means of transportation. Mule and I tried out the bus stop, and bumped into a nice guy from KBR (one of the big contractors over here). He offered us a ride to the Palace, where we could look for an alternate means of transportation to the HQ building. On the way, we found out that this guy has been in country for 22 months and spends most of his time as a convoy driver. Mule asked him how many times he’d been ‘blown up,’ and this guy told us about his two encounters with IED’s. The first one blew the tire off of his truck, and he was thrown from the cab (another good reason for seatbelts), the second one just disabled the truck. It just amazes me that the money these guys are earning is worth that type of risk to them.

Several car rides later (thanks to some friends we met on the way), we wound up at the HQ building. Once again, folks had no idea what to do with us. After an hour of killing time, the Suppo (‘Chop’) offered to take us on a little tour. We grabbed some fru-fru coffee at the Green Beans Coffee Shop (a staple on the U.S. Bases) and he rolled us through neighborhoods that obviously used to be homes for Iraqi citizens. It just amazes me that we have wholesale taken over parts of this city. One has to wonder, “Where did all the people go?” I know if it was me, I wouldn’t be too happy about being uprooted from my home. Maybe this is what fuels some of the insurgency. I’m sure the U.S. compensated these folks in some way (built them a new home, gave them jobs with one of the contractors, etc.), but that isn’t always enough when it comes to your home. Think of those guys who hold out against ‘Eminent Domain’ land seizures. It’s not the money, it’s your home, and it’s where your kids grew up. I just see this as one of MANY challenges that lie ahead for the Coalition. As it stands now, I sit here on my cot (fresh with mattress stolen from one of the other empty tents) and wonder what the future holds. Hell, at this point, I’d be happy with a job. We’ll let that hold until next week. Maybe I’ll go to the gym again (makes the Missus happy when I say things like that).
-Grease out.

February 22, 2007 –
The waiting for something to do lifestyle is starting to wear on me. Today was an off day for the gym (a good thing as my body needs to recover from the last two days – I may still go for a short run later), so most of the day was spent in the tent. I stopped by the Haji Bazaar this morning to grab some goofy gifts for my brother’s and sister. As I entered the tent, the rain began … and kept going. The soil here is only about two inches deep before you get to bedrock, so any chance of drainage is nil. The mud is this kind of gooey light brown-gray mess, and it gets on everything. The rocks they put down to combat the mud just wind up sticking to your shoe in the mud, so that’s nice. I’m surprised they don’t have more injuries from slipping in the mud. Having spent my share of winters in the Midwest, this stuff is like ice when it’s fresh. I almost bit it several times today before I got my ‘ice legs’ under me. You know, the ability to glide on top of the ice without busting your butt. It works most of the time, but everyone who has spent a winter in the North will tell you, eventually you will misjudge it and wind up on your keester. Today was a good day, no mishaps … score one for Grease … tomorrow may be a different animal though.

Some of the folks not in class who know what their job is met with the folks they are relieving today, so it was a quiet day in the tent. Most folks were out getting tours of the places they will work. I had planned to go out several times today, but circumstances told me that the tent was the best option. You see, it’s Thursday in Baghdad … Thursday is wedding day in their culture, and weddings are celebrated with random gunfire in the air. Some bright soul in charge has decided that, to ‘win their hearts and minds,’ we will allow each household to have one gun with ammunition … not the best way to control the populous. All day long we heard random bouts of gunfire. There are three types of gunfire here in the ‘Wild Wild West’: The first is short bursts of American gunfire (M-16, M-249, M-240). These are the convoys testing weapons before leaving the ‘wires’ (the compound). This type is usually short and well directed (they have a dirt hill that they blow the heck out of). The second type is longer volleys of American guns and AK-47 fire. This is a firefight. It can last several minutes or longer depending on how long it takes to eliminate the threat (When I say “eliminate the threat,” this doesn’t always mean killing an insurgent – sometimes they just run away … a soft kill so to speak). This gets your attention because, if we hear it, it’s probably close to the wires (the borders of Camp Liberty/Victory aren’t too far away – within eyesight of our position). You stop, take note of where the fighting is, then resume your routine. The third type of gunfire is the strangest. This is the celebratory fire following weddings, parties, etc. This one really gets your attention, because these assclowns are firing randomly in the air, with no thought to where the bullet will come down. This is why we live behind the giant cement walls. Apparently the cement is high enough to stop any rounds that might cause harm. Either way, I stay inside during the jackassery. My soft sided tent might not provide much protection, but it might slow said bullet down enough so that it only bruises me … I know it’s not much of a defense, but I’m going with it.

The bullets are one thing, but the mortars and rockets are another. The insurgents were overly active today. There is no advance warning for the mortars, just a big boom off in the distance. Thankfully, mortars don’t have huge range, so we’re pretty safe here. We did have our first rocket attack today. You can hear these if you’re outside (that whistle like in the cartoons). They fire the rockets in salvos. One boom, then another, then another, then sirens. Apparently today’s attack didn’t really hit anything, and they dispatched the insurgents quickly after that (The giant voice warning system came on and said “ALL CLEAR” – I appreciated that … I would have appreciated it more if the giant voice actually told us about the attack BEFORE it happened). After that, I decided that I would remain in the tent for the rest of the day … my goal is to go home without any medals that have ‘purple’ in them. The nice thing is, both sides take the nights off, so I think I’ll go for a little jog. Until tomorrow.
-Grease out.

February 23, 2007 –
It’s amazing how quickly you transfer into deployment mode. Our (the group in my tent) conversations up to this point have been quite professional. That changed today … we have reached the threshold of stupidity. I was involved in a ten minute conversation today about the effects of fat-free (Olesta) chips on your digestive tract (read: anal seepage). We also had a long conversation about one of our tent neighbors, who laughs like a hyena. Let’s call him ‘Taz.’ Taz laughs at almost everything, and you can hear him several tents away. My thought was, anyone who can find that much joy in such a dismal place, he’s doing something right.

It dried out today, so the walks back and forth to places on the base were easier. There is a bus system, but it’s rarely where you need it, and it doesn’t go to far. That being said, most of my journeys are on foot. It’s probably better that way, it’s a nice walk back from the gym when you have beaten yourself silly for an hour.

We spent the dinner hour observing a time honored ritual – deployment dating. We were seated across from a couple who were obviously into each other. It was quite amazing to watch the body language as they had their dinner. The hair toss, the occasional foot touch, etc. As self-proclaimed ‘old married guys,’ we found the whole thing quite comical. I’m sure the two of them were sitting there saying, “There’s a bunch of strange dudes staring at us … creepy.”

After dinner we moved over to the MWR tent (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) to jump on the phones/internet and listen to the 1st Cavalry band play a selection of hits. These kids were surprisingly good. Obviously, they have had ample time to practice. Well, it’s about time to go call home and talk to my kids (they get home from school around 3:30 EST, which is 11:30 PM my time), so I’ll sign off. More to come.
-Grease out.

First stop home, next stop ...