Sunday, December 30, 2007

Corruption: Standard Issue?

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that all Iraqi’s are corrupt – it’s just the one’s I work with (and not even all of them, either). Applying a broad generalization like that is no fairer than saying all state department Foreign Service Officers are pansies. I know that there are alot more courageous, patriotic FSOs than there are sniveling cowards, just as I know there is a lot of honest, loyal, hard working Iraqis. By this point you have to be wondering what happened to bring on this rambling rant, and you’d be right to assume there is a story behind it.

As I mentioned before, construction is really starting to ramp up in our area. What used to be a few trucks a day hauling in materials is now dozens, and if you were to look out over the vast area we are in, you’d get a lot of dust in your eyes. It’s annoying. We really need to pave the place. In addition to all of the construction in our area, a massive new construction project has started in the area just beyond ours. To get to this project, though, you need to cross through our area of operations, thus increasing our traffic even more.

Now, our Iraqi commander stonewalls me whenever I tell him we need to allow trucks in for our own projects. So, you can imagine my complete shock when I am called into his office to find both Iraqi commanders and the contractor sitting there, smiling like they all just found out they were long lost brothers. Hint #1 that something was amiss – both Iraqi Colonel’s together in the same room at the same time. It’s kind of like seeing the sun and moon together at the same time – when it happens, it kind of freaks you out. Hint #2 was the enthusiastic manner in which both Colonels insisted we allow these trucks through our area of operations. It went something like this (after I walked into the room, shook everyone’s hand 3 times, spun in a circle and touched my nose):

Colonel #1: “Captain, we must allow these trucks to use our roads.”

Me: “Sir, I agree, we cant just allow these guy to come in here and . . .wait, what? Did you just say we must allow them to?”

Colonel#2: “Yes, yes, it is very important.”

Ok, that was the third thing that tipped me off. The details for the construction project in question are given out on a need to know basis. Meaning, these two have no idea what’s being built. Therefore, they certainly aren’t enthusiastic about letting the trucks through for the good of the project. So, our Aussie Major pulled the contractor outside and gave him the standard “You don’t have to bribe them, we’ll let you through anyway, yadda yadda.” He shook his head and that was that – the deal was done.

So in the passing week’s I haven’t thought much about this meeting until recently. I was driving through our area with the liason from the task force involved in the big project. We were discussing progress and other boring details when he laughed at one of our Iraqi guards with a clipboard.

“Why are you laughing”, I asked him.

He responded “Because, I find it humorous (not so much haha, more so like wtf) that your Iraqi commander charges by the truck. That Soldier there? He’s counting trucks. Reports it to Colonel.”

So I immediately thought back to the meeting and asked “So you think our guys are taking bribes?”

“No”, he answered, “I know they are. One day, none of the trucks were allowed in. The Iraqi in charge pulls all of the drivers into his office and starts in on how all these trucks were making his job hard, and yet he has no benzene, no food. So, they all gave some food or money or gas, and they haven’t had any problems since.”

I thought for a moment, then asked him “How do you think we stop it? We’re out here, but we can’t be everywhere, and damn if these guys aren’t slick.”

His answer was that he doesn’t think we can stop it, not without proof and not so long as the contractor is willing to pay the bribes to make things run smoother. And so it goes, I guess. It’s frustrating, because we’ve tried to collect proof. I’ve personally ridden with the Inspector General in an unmarked, almost unarmed convoy when they were tracking money from Baghdad to here, and we still couldn’t collect any proof. Short of telling my contractors they don’t have to pay the bribes, I don’t see an easy solution. I just hate to think that we represent a microcosm of what happens in the high levels of government, because if that’s the case, this country is off to a troubled start. Ok, you can file that last one away in the “Thanks CPT Obvious department”, because I know there is corruption everywhere in the world. I just think that a country with a fledging government should be working to more honest solutions, not turning a blind eye to corruption.

My camera is MIA, so no more pictures for the time being. Hope everyone has a happy new year, and I’ll sign out with a big good riddance to 2007!!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A new report on Iraq

Michael Yon has published the report from retired Army General Barry R McCaffrey here. In my always humble opinion (ha), the General gives a very honest assessment of the situation here in Iraq. It goes from the good ("VIOLENCE DOWN DRAMATICALLY"), to the not-so-good ("CENTRAL GOVERNMENT DOES NOT WORK"). I really encourage everyone to read the entire report.

There are some great no-kidding quotes in there. Here are some of my personal favorites (with my thoughts in italics. Yes, I felt the need to point that out, just in case someone misread it and thought the general was as sarcastic as me):


- "We are losing our combat experienced mid-career NCOs’ and Captains at an excessive rate." (cough cough) What - who, me? Gee, I wonder why . . .

- "Their morale is high, they are proud of their service, they have enormous personal courage—however, they see a nation of 300 million people with only an under resourced Armed Forces at war. The US Army at 400,000 troops is too small to carry out the current military strategy." Yes, its called family time. We get none of it when we are deploying every other year.

- "The National Guard and Reserves are too small, are inadequately resourced, their equipment is broken or deployed, they are beginning their second involuntary combat deployments, and they did not sign up to be a regular war-fighting force." This one brought tears to my eyes. Well, not really, but it is so eloquent and . . .TRUE!

and finally, a personal shot at the man I hold responsible for my call-up:

- "Mr. Rumsfeld was an American patriot, of great personal talent, energy, experience, bureaucratic cleverness, and charisma—who operated with personal arrogance, intimidation and disrespect for the military, lack of forthright candor, avoidance of personal responsibility, and fundamental bad judgment." Well said, sir, well said indeed!

That's my summary, but like I said, its a great report, so go read it for yourself!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

Your probably thinking to yourself - wow, Christmas in Iraq must suck. But actually . .. . yea it does, your right, its terrible. It's really just another day for most of us, albeit there isn't much work going on and with the Iraqi's away finishing their own celebration, we have no one to train, either. So we'll spend the day just kind of messing around, and maybe later we'll smoke a nice cigar and talk about what we'd being doing if we were home. Then tomorrow we'll wake up and it will be business as usual. So ya see, its not really too hard for us. I think it must be much harder on our families, though. They are still doing everything like normal, except without us.

Christmas Eve is easily my favorite day of the year, as I think it is for most of my family. Christmas is a close runner up, but Christmas Eve has always been special. It's three events that really set it apart. The day is usually spent doing last minute shopping or helping to get ready for that night. The 1st thing is going to Church as a family. It's a tradition that we used to do with alot more regularity (like, every Sunday), but with all of us growing up, Christmas is our family mass now.

After mass, I am usually scrambling to get back home so I can be my usual 10 minutes late for Rachael's families annual Christmas Eve dinner. We have been going to the same restaurant now every year for the last 10 years and its always great - Filet Mignon, Sam Adams, and garlic mashed potatoes. Not that I'm predictable. After dinner we return the Becker's and exchange gifts, although since Rache and I are married now, we wait for the morning.

After the Becker's dinner is the Worley family Christmas party. This tradition is older than I am, and was started by my late grandfather, Richard. If there was ever a person who loved Christmas more than him, I'd like to meet them. Now, both my parents come from huge families, so there is typically around 30 or more people there every year. All my aunts and uncles, cousins, and close family friends (must be over 18 - family rule!). There is always shrimp, good beer, Christmas music, and happy faces all night. The best part is just hanging out with everyone and the overall festive atmosphere. Gifts are exchanged toward the end of the night and everyone trickles out after helping to clean up; on their way home to set up the presents for the next morning.

So, its not quite the same here in Iraq, but thats ok. I got to talk to my family on the phone at the party (even though I'm pretty sure I was still asleep and don't remember much of it) and I'll be home in no time. Just like everything else, my appreciation for this night, and for my family, is made stronger by missing them.

If you are at home, enjoy the company of your family and friends today, and Merry Christmas to everyone!!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A New Rant

I feel a new rant slowly starting to build, but I don't have all the ammo I need for it just yet. I'll give you hint - it's going to involve military awards, especially the one's given out for a "combat" deployment. It will also involve who gets what award, and how an LT that works in an office near the general is much more likely to get a high award then the same LT leading his platoon on daily combat patrols. Its utter and complete BS, and its one of the many reasons I tried to get out of the Army 3 years ago. I didn't say it was THE reason - there are alot of them that tie together and make for one BIG reason. This is just the one that is sitting on top of my pile today. Stay tuned for more . . .

NOTE: this has nothing to do with any award I may or may not get from this deployment. I just heard some talk about the high levels of awards being given out and it got me thinking back to Afghanistan. Hence the rant. That could be coming . . .

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Letter to my Wife on her Birthday

Dear Rachael,

As you know, I am pretty bad when it comes to being an emotional person. In fact, I suck at it. Every year, I try to write something nice and sensitive in a card for you, and every year you smile and lie and tell me how nice it was. In fact, I vaguely remember trying to write poetry about 8 years ago - HAHA - what a joke that turned out to be. So we both know where my strength is not. This year, however, I am not home for your birthday or Christmas, so my lame attempt at telling you how I feel in a Hallmark card will have to wait another 365 days (wait, 366 - stupid leap year!) Instead, this year, I've decided to lay it all out to bare for anyone on the internet to read. I figure 8 years from now, this could pass the poetry as the lamest thing I've ever done.

Since I've been in this miserable place 6000 miles away from you, I've had alot of time to reflect on our relationship. 126 months ago (that's 10 1/2 years to the math impaired), you and I sat awkwardly in my parents basement watching Cheers, since my sister and John W. kindly left us alone (finally!) That was the start of it (sorry folks, PG content only here - haha just kidding Mr Becker nothing happened I swear!) And as we both know, it was a week later on the steps of your parents house that we both thought there might be something special, when we talked for 6 hours straight about nothing because someone else was in your basement (sorry Shana, your going down too). At least that's when I thought I had someone special; I don't think I EVER talked to someone for that long before, let alone a girl. The rest of the summer was great and we had alot of fun until it was almost time for school to start up again and for us to part ways. Sensing that we had to make some sort of verbal acknowledgment of this, we talked and agreed to "cross that bridge when we got to it", using the phrase that has dogged us ever since.

As the weeks turned into months, and the months gave way to years, we grew from just boyfriend/girlfriend to best friends, and the sacrifices we made for each other weren't that at all to us - they were invaluable opportunities for us to see each other. Whether it was me walking to the train station in Chester at 5am to see you in Princeton, or you riding the train from Princeton to Richmond, we would never pass up even the slightest chance to see each other. Eventually I was given a car that was a campus security favorite at Princeton and things got a little easier, since we were just a 45 minute car ride from each other. Well, they were easy until Sunday morning when I had to go beg for the boot to be removed. Then I graduated and the Army, in all its life-changing power, stationed me as close to you as they could. As many breaks that haven't gone our way, this might have been the one "break" that worked in our favor, because a 5 hour drive from Fort Drum to Princeton was always the highlight of my month. Not to mention all the concerts I was privy too as a result of that drive! (concert = me signing at the top of my lungs to stay awake)

The funny thing about the distance is that there isn't one time I can remember questioning why I was doing what i was doing, and not one second I wasn't wishing you were with me, and not one day I could let go by without recapping it with you. Even in Afghanistan, the one thing I could look forward to was pulling the note you wrote me for that day from the magic box you made me before I left. There, as I can here, I had alot of time to think, which is why before I left that country I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you. Not that there was ever any doubt before that but, rather, I knew I couldn't wait another second. No more bridges!

Ok, we both know that life is full of bridges now. Its inevitable. So we got married and I worked 3rd shift, but we were together. It wasn't so bad, with Chester waking me up every evening when you got home from work so we could eat dinner together. It was inconvenient, but we were together. Now I've been gone for the last year and its alot more inconvenient, and there are times when I just don't think I can last another second over here. Its those times that flip open my wallet to the faded and worn picture of you and I together and smile a little, because I know that soon, a decade of being apart will come to an end. And then we can let our happiness truly begin.

Happy Birthday, see you soon and I Love You!!


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

reality check

I've been avoiding my blog lately. Ahh, it feels good to admit it. I think part of the reason I was avoiding it is because that writing again would mean that yes, I am really back here in Iraq. This isn't a bad dream I'm having, and Chester isn't going to wake me up by licking my face. It took me a couple weeks to really come back into the mind-set that I need to be in, but, here I am!

This is going to come as a huge surprise to most people, so brace yourselves - but since I left, there has been almost NO change in any of the projects going on here. Shocker, I know. It's not my absence that fueled the complete and utter lack of progress, because let's be honest - there wasn't any forward progress when I was here! I guess I harbored some deep hope of returning to a plethora of construction projects underway, some nearing completion and others just beginning, and then I could hold hands with the Iraqi's and sing Koombya and we'd all be happy. Instead, the same set of warehouses being worked on when I left is still being worked on, and the two scheduled to begin, haven't yet begun. The Iraqi's aren't really to blame here, though. What's holding us back? We have the money allocated, we have the design plans approved, and we have bidders. Mostly what is holding us back is good old American bureaucracy. Paperwork. Miscommunication. Things that make me slap my forehead repeatedly like Homer Simpson with a big "D'Oh!"

One good sign is that we are starting the process for end-of-tour awards and evaluations. Yes, this is a process that will take up to 4 months, but just starting it at least signals the beginning of the end. Not that I am looking forward to going home or anything. I've already informed my chain of command that the only award I want is a DD214 (which is the document you get when you are discharged from the Army). They half believe me. I think there should be an IRR award. I continue to get reports from friends going through the process now who tell me about a 33% or less show rate for IRR recalls. I know we signed a contract and are obligated to report, but most of us who showed up when we got the call did so more as a sense of duty. As much as we deny that in our current state of bitterness, it was more of a moral obligation than anything. What happens to the 67% that don't show up? Nothing. Seriously. I have all but confirmed that there are more no shows than the Army can handle and so nothing of any consequence happens to those who don't report. Do I wish I didn't report? No. I am too much of moral nerd to have lived with myself for not showing. So here I am, again. It's almost over now anyway, so I better stop writing and start making an impact on this country. What - me, sarcastic? Never!

For slightly a slightly less sarcastic view of a current event in Iraq, read this post by Brendan B.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Are we there yet?

That's the question I must have asked myself about a thousand times on my way back from leave. The journey home seemed longer because of the anticipation, but it was a happy anticipation. It was a smiling, overly happy, I-can-sit-in-this-same-spot-for-10-days-if-it-means- I-am-gonna-be-home kinda mentality. Going home, everything just worked out perfect. I knew a Sergeant Major in Kuwait, so I was able to get on an earlier flight home to the States - two days earlier than anyone expected me - so you imagine the surprise on Rachael's face when I showed up in her office in uniform! Everything else while I was home on leave was great as well - my dog remembered me, I didn't lose my shirt in Vegas, and we had 60 family members over for Thanksgiving. It was hard for me to leave everything and everyone I love, again, and come back here.

I really didn't care how the trip back here went, although it did go fairly smooth. It's a long trip - 18 hours of flying with 6 different stops. That doesn't even include a minimum of 8 hours in three of the stops just waiting, and then another day or so in Iraq waiting for transportation back to Taji. Now, here I am, 3 and a half days of traveling and a crap load of jet lag later, counting down the days until I am home for good. My mood is improving a little as I get back into the daily routine here, and there has been some changes since I left that I'll write more about later. For now though, I just look forward to getting back into a rhythm where the days melt away like they did before leave!

Friday, November 9, 2007

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We're sorry, the page you requested is currently unavailable. The author is currently home on R&R and will be spending every waking second with his beautiful wife and family!

I do want to thank everyone for all your support so far throughout this deployment - the overwhelming encouragement I have received has been far and away the biggest motivator getting me to this point. Look for some more posts sometime around the beginning of December!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Harden Up

A group of Pansies . . . .

This is awesome. One day, I too hope I can publicly cry, whine, and snivel at a job I don't want to do. I understand that they don't want to come to Iraq - trust me, I do. But please spare me the dramatics. A death sentence? Seriously? I would give my left nut to be assigned to the Embassy in the Green Zone. I've been there, and I honestly didn't even feel like I was in Iraq. There is probably NO safer place in this country. Yet, these State Department guys stand up and whine like they just got a wedgy on the playground. I mean, you would think an official under public scrutiny would at least exhibit some amount of personal pride. Forget that their comments are like a kick to the groin to every service member over here; it's their utter lack of, well, manhood that just boggles my mind. How does this guy explain to his kids that he stood in front of God and Nation and cried about incoming rockets to the most heavily fortified area EVER, and then proclaimed it a death sentence. Does anyone else picture his lip quivering and his voice shaky as he says this? I don't know, maybe I am being harsh. But for crying out loud, have a little pride. State Department officials, you need to Harden Up!!

Now, I don't claim to know anything about their job or their feelings or anything else, and I don't really care. I am just talking about our nations representatives exhibiting complete cowardice in public. Obviously, it's not all of them, but Sadly, this is the public face now for the State Department. There is some really good discussion of this situation here, as well as a state department official's rebuttal. Interesting . . .

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Typical Situation

The sensory overload was making my head spin, but I had to get control of the situation, so I stepped back for a second and just kinda laughed to myself. This is typical, I thought to myself. A typical meeting with a typical Iraqi self-appointed bigshot.

A few posts ago I wrote about the green sewer trench that has taken on a life of its own. Well, this trench is about to overflow and fill our little camp with its green goodness. Despite numerous phone calls to the local contractor responsible for emptying this trench, the level of green has continued to rise. Tired of calling and begging this company to do the work they are being paid for, I decided to pay them a visit in person. So, an Iraqi Major, Aussie major, translator and I hopped in our vehicles and made the 10 minute drive to the company. The scene that greeted us was expected - a fleet of "sucker" trucks sitting there unused, and a gaggle of people just milling around talking and smoking.

We walked inside the building into a large office that was bare except for a huge desk at the far end of the room, two couches on either side of the room near the door, a few plastic chairs on the opposite end of the room as the desk, and next to the chairs, a 20" TV. It was the TV that threatened to drive my sanity completely from my body.

We were ushered into this office, exchanged our standard greetings, and offered a seat at the far end of the room. I got the seat right next to the TV. So there we are, sitting, waiting for this guy to finish shuffling the papers on his desk and punching his calculator like it just insulted his mother. All the while, people are coming into the office to exchange shouts with this guy, then running back out. Add to all this the TV, which was at max volume. No kidding, the TV was so loud that when anyone on the show talked, the speakers buzzed. There were several other people waiting, although for what I don't know, because after about 5 minutes of this the head honcho looks at my Iraqi Major and says something. So them the two of them begin shouting in Arabic across the room. Neither made an attempt to get up - they were perfectly comfortable shouting at each other at the furthest possible distance they could get while in the same room. So now we have those two shouting, the guy on the TV bellowing in Arabic and buzzing like crazy, random people still running into the room to exchange yells, and my translator - who must have decided that whispering was the best way to convey to me what was going on, because I saw his lips moving, but I definitely didn't hear what the hell he was saying.

So I chuckled to myself, since this type of mass confusion isn't really that uncommon when conducting a meeting, at least from my experience here. At that point I got up, turned the TV down, motioned for my translator to follow, and stood by the guys desk. I'm thinking something about turning the TV down pissed this guy off, because all conversation ceased and he was just staring at the TV with his mouth slightly open. At this point my Iraqi Major also got up and came over to the guys desk, who decided that he'd better stand, too. We finally got control of the situation and convinced Mr. Bigshot that he needed to send more trucks. He barked some loud orders to no one in particular, and all of the sudden there were about 6 trucks lined up ready to come over to our site. As we were finishing up the conversation, another guy came in, went to the TV and jacked the volume back to its max, buzzing capacity. I couldn't have gotten out of there sooner. But, we got our trucks, which as my Aussie Major said, is the Duck's Guts*!

* I think that's Australian for good. If any of my Aussie readers wanna correct me, please do!

Friday, October 26, 2007

My very own AFN Commercial

"Here's a thought from the V corps safety office: Next time your driving, pay attention the the driver behind the one in front of you." Wait, what? That doesn't even make any sense! If I have to spend more than 15 seconds trying to decipher the meaning behind something, and then it still doesn't make any sense, then I usually get pretty aggravated at the uselessness of the message. Yet, this is just another example of an AFN, or Armed Forces Network, "commercial". These "commercials" are actually more infomercials or propagandist tools to convince us that our occupation here is glorifying and that we should re-enlist at the earliest opportunity. And yet others, like the example above, make absolutely no sense at all. I should state yet again that I am lucky enough to be able to watch TV; I will also mention that a friend of mine donated his TV to someone else and now refuses to watch anything because these propaganda-mercials were driving him mad. No joke.

Now, I understand why they can’t show us real commercials. It has to do with networks donating the broadcasts and revenues and that sort of stuff. So now we have to be subjected to these spots made on what seems to be a $5 budget by a 7th grade student. I take that back; I definitely made better videos when I was in 7th grade. Maybe a 3rd grader. I'll let you be the judge - here is a particular example that has forever ruined this U2 song for me. Please take the time to notice the completely random words chosen from the kids’ conversation that flash up during the spot; for some reason to me they are hilarious, mainly because they make absolutely no sense. Not too mention - thanks for the virginity plug while I am in Iraq. That makes a ton of sense. (I know, these commercials air in Germany and elsewhere for families).

It was in the spirit of these ridiculous, low budget attempts that I decided to come up with my own message. This one revolves around gambling, in the spirit of this AFN moral insight.

Here are my top 4 reasons to never, ever gamble (and if I do, why to never make a bet involving my favorite team, against co-workers who may make me humiliate myself):This is the downfall of a once proud, die-hard Eagles fan. There's help out there, Gary. If not for you, at least do it for your family.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Not another post about frustration!

The stark contrast was almost a thing of beauty: the long, desolate stretch of desert slamming into a rushing, winding river; on the other side, green everywhere. It was my first trip outside of the Baghdad area and the change of scenery was nice. The goal of my trip was to tour the marine logistics operation out in TQ and fine tune some ideas to implement in the Iraqi logistic system. My problem lately is that I have been so bogged down in the daily grind that I found myself thinking solely inside the confines of what I have become accustomed to. This trip was much needed as it gave me a good refresher of what "right" looks like, and also gave me several ideas for use with the Iraqi's. Once I returned I put those ideas into a picture show for our counterparts who seemed really receptive, and even excited. My counterpart, and Iraqi Colonel, told me it made him happy that I was thinking about ideas to help them. Uh - isn't that what I've been doing for the past 5 months here?

While I was in Baghdad last week though, I saw the signs of frustration everywhere, especially within the IRR mafia. This was really the 1st time I have seen our group as a whole with just a complete lack of morale. It's the same reasoning, almost across the board: frustration caused by bureaucracy, progress measured with a microscope, and the Groundhog Day effect. In a weird reversal of roles and for probably the first time ever, my morale might be higher then the group's. Of course, I am at an unfair advantage - I will be home on leave in less then three weeks.

This brings to mind a question asked over and over again about our occupancy and the current wars - what is the ideal deployment time? Each service has a different rotation length, ranging anywhere from 3 months to 18 months. The standard for just about every service except for the Army is 6 months. The Army standard? 12-18 months. I'm pretty sure I think this is asinine. Your motivation and morale starts to plummet at the 6 month mark, as I have experienced two times now. I know the arguments for the longer deployments. 1st, if we had short deployments, we'd just deploy more often. But I'm pretty sure we deploy alot now. 2nd, we don’t have the manpower to sustain shorter, more frequent rotations. 3rd - we are just starting to learn what to do at the 5-6 month mark, therefore making our latter months here that much more effective. That one is laughable. This is the Army - you can learn your job in less then a month and be effective at it. Those latter months are spent more thinking about how many ways you hate this place then in ways to improve your job.

Regardless, with R&R approaching my morale is climbing. I think, and hope, that upon returning I will be able to sustain a higher level of motivation and use it to make an actual difference before I leave this place. That, however, remains to be seen. . . . .

One more note: This article by Michael Yon is a must read. In one article he gives a far better depiction of the current situation in Iraq than I could manage to get across in a hundred meaningless posts!

Sunday, October 21, 2007


I just got back from a short trip out West to Habbiniyah and al-Taqaddam (TQ) , so I will write a better update tomorrow. However, I wanted to make a quick comment regarding football this Sunday. 1st - I'm not able to watch the Eagles this week, so feel free to bet accordingly. 2nd - listen to the announcers. It's one of my favorite things to do. In particular, listen to the awful statistics they use freely throughout the game. Comments like, "We should have expected this, Troy. Donovan McNabb has a passer rating of 58.6 in home games played during November that start after 4pm." Huh!? At what point did the producer decide that would be a good, relevant stat to throw out there during the broadcast? I wonder what the network statisticians make, and how I could go about getting that job. Then I could be the one giving the announcers awesome stats like, Brian Westbrook's yard per carry average in the 3rd quarter of away games when the temperature is below 45 degrees.

Ok, so this post had nothing to do with Iraq or my life here. I never promised to stay on track all the time. I will post some pictures from my latest road trip, though, so check out the link on the right if you're interested!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ain't no party like an Iraqi Party

Well Ramadan is finally over, which means the end of hiding our drinking habits from the Iraqi's and also the end of their fast. Instead of having a Mardi Gras-type celebration before their fasting period, Muslim's have a big 4 day feast after the big fast. This year, we were fortunate to be invited (for some us it was actually rather unfortunate. As in, the next day was spent doing the 100 meter dash across our gravel lot to the bathroom type unfortunate. But I digress . . . .)
The feast began with us starting a fire and getting some hot coals ready for the fire pit. With enough hot coals for the food, the Iraqi's broke out their traditional Hookah pipe. Now, I know what this looks like, but I swear, it was only strawberry tobacco . . . and I didn't inhale . . .ok maybe just a little.
Next, they began cooking the traditional meal of lamb and assorted veggies with and kobez, which is basically just a flat bread. I think the unfortunate among us were those who enjoyed a little too much lamb, but what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, right?
After dinner we smoked the hookah a little more and meandered around talking to different people. It was a fun time for everyone, a time for us to relax and them to celebrate. Nothing real exciting happened beyond that, so hopefully these pictures have spruced up this entry!

NOTE: The people in the last picture are not actually faceless bodies. I just smudged out their faces for security reasons.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


I'm currently reading a very good book sent to me by my Aunt, who lives in Yosemite Valley (which, by the way, must really suck. I mean, what do you do for a scenic vacation when you live it everyday?) The name of the book is "The Last Season", by Eric Blehm, and its a true story about a backcountry ranger in the Sierra Nevada mountains who goes missing. Great book, so far. But about 1/3 of the way into it I read a few lines that made me put down the book and think, 'Wow, that could really sum up things here in Iraq."

Without going into to much detail, the book is basically describing the early part of this rangers life, during a time in which he joined the peace corps and was assigned to helping farmers in India. After two years in which the farmers had tripled their crop output, the book says "it seems they had, after many roadblocks, succeeded in their quest. Not long before Randy left, he asked one of the farmers . . . if he intended to continue farming the land as he had been taught. The farmer, with a cheery disposition, said no, they wouldn't. 'That is how you farm in America. This is how we farm in India.' "

Substitute farm with fight or work, and India with Iraq, and you get our current situation. Ok, so maybe thats a pretty bleak outlook, but is it so wrong? Sure, there are some things our Iraqi's will take away from us (like a lot of stuff we paid for), but in the end, when we leave, am I going to be having this same conversation?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

rain o'er me

As we were sitting there finishing our lunch, several loud booms shook the dining facility, which got suddenly quiet. A couple people I was eating with glanced around nervously until I said "Relax guys. It's just thunder." They both laughed disbelievingly. After all, we hadn't seen anything other then blue skies and sun since we got here in late April. Sure enough, though, when we walked outside it was actually raining. I was almost giddy with excitement and I rushed to stand in the rain-drops. My excitement lasted all of about 2 minutes, about the time it took for us to walk away from the building and through mud that stuck to us like glue. Figures, I thought. Even something as pure and refreshing as rain gets ruined over here. Still, it was nice to not see the sun for a little bit.

We are finally putting together a plan to transition this place over to Iraqi control. After 5 months and being the 3rd rotation through here, ya'd have thought that was done already. Nope. It's going to be tough to get alot of the tasks accomplished during our rotation, though. As rough as these Iraqi's have it because of the situation here and the constant danger their families are in, they sure have some sweet work arrangements. Get this - they get two weeks of vacation every month. That's right - they work 2 weeks, then take 2 weeks off. That works out to roughly 26 weeks of vacation per year. On top of that, they work from about 7:30am to 11:30am, take 3 and half hours for lunch, and then work from about 3pm to 5 pm. That's right - a 6 hour work day with a 3 and half hour lunch. WOW. Sign me up! (just kidding Rache, take a deep breath). But they work 7 days a week, right? Nope. Friday's are off. So who picks up the slack? You guessed it - the coalition troops here. That's going to have to change if we ever want to transition this place. Unfortunately, my favorite senior advisor seems to be allowing them more time off, as their commander continues to get what he wants and laugh all the way to the bank.

On a random note, Vegas called me. They want to know when I will be watching any Philadelphia sports team play so they can adjust the line. Seriously - I'm 0-6 when watching a game. I initially thought the Eagles were just off to a bad start, but then the one game I don't see they go off and score 56 points. The very next game, as I watch helplessly, McNabb gets sacked 12 times and they lose ugly to the Giants. To make matters worse, my unluckiness was passed onto the Phillies, as I got to see all 3 of their losses to the Rockies. What's going on here? I know I have bad luck, but can it really be that bad? The Phils averaged 5.5 runs per game in the regular season, yet in the 3 games I actually get to see they score a total of 8. I guess I can't complain too much - when I was in Afghanistan I got to see one game all year (a playoff loss by the Eagles - go figure). That's enough for today - I have to go take a slash now anyways.**

** Aussie phrase of the day!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Things you dont see everyday

Last time I was in Baghdad I saw this sign:
This sign really confuses me. At first I thought it was a joke, like the "Coming Soon . . . Walmart" ad here in Taji (picture to follow in a later blog), but then someone told me it was an official sign. My question is, do they really feel this sign is the answer? Like, I am walking down the street, M4 in one hand and flask of Wild Turkey in the other, and I stumble upon this sign and say "Oh crap, I forgot! Better go put my M4 away so I can continue to get sloshed!" Which brings me to another point. This sign implies that if your NOT under arms it's perfectly acceptable to drink. So its not enough that they ban all US Military from drinking, but now they have to go and throw this sign up in our face to remind us that other state department officials are not only armed but allowed to drink?

Here's another thing you dont see everyday:Yes, that's a group of us in a huddle playing flag football. In Iraq. Where it's still 106 degrees out. Why do we do this to ourselves? I guess this answers the age old question: Which is better? Extreme dehydration or insanity provoking boredom?

Thursday, October 4, 2007

What's the Frequency Kenneth

There is actually no one here named Kenneth, so I'm not sure where the title of this blog came from. I started thinking about the frequency in which I update this blog and that song came to mind. Speaking of songs, I have been going around singing songs in Arabic lately. "Habibee . . . Habibee . . ." It's great because most of the songs sound like they are intentionally being sung off-key, and they all center on the word Habibe (= my love). Ok, maybe not all of them, but all the ones I hear do. I think I can be an Arabic Frank Sinatra if I try hard enough . . .and trust me, I'm practicing.

Back to my original reason for this blog, which is how frequently I post. I feel like I should be writing more often - I enjoy it and its sort of therapeutic. However, I am conflicted, because if I start posting more often then my posts will be more and more about . . .nothing. I guess thats ok, since the rest of this blog isn't exactly a collection of James Joyce, so I'll give it a shot for a while.

I do have plenty to write about. For example, I haven't given the Aussie's here near the amount of attention they deserve. The group of Australian Soldier's we have working with us here have been awesome. Besides the fact that I am picking up all sorts of new phrases, like "Cheers", "bloke", and "choco" (which is a derogatory term for a reservist, which I'm not. You hear that Maj H??), they really do an outstanding job and add much needed humor to our daily operations. They are sort of like advisors to the advisors, or our advisors, since they stay out of the daily grind and focus on the 10,000 foot view. That, and they give us cool Australian keepsakes, most of which have a kangaroo on them. Seriously.

So in the spirit of the Aussie's and updating the blog more often, I might start adding things like "Cool Australian phrase of the day" and "Words of Wisdom from the sewage trench". Then again, I might just stick to my routine of writing once a week. I have to go get my hair cut now. I have a meeting with some Marines and I don't want to look like a Choco.

Monday, October 1, 2007

No more bridges

I'm tired of bridges. Not the literal kind, like the one here that is in a perpetual state of getting blown up and rebuilt. No, I'm talking about figurative bridges, like the kind that I promised Rache we wouldn't have to deal with anymore when we got married. The phrase stems from waay back when we first started dating and we were faced with the end of our first summer together, which meant going our separate ways and going to different schools. Instead of worrying about things that loomed to challenge our relationship, we'd always just say "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it". In fact, we crossed so many "bridges" during our relationship that she had that phrase, "No more bridges", inscribed on my wedding ring.

It was two years ago today that I put on that wedding ring. I'm guessing that's why right now I am so frustrated. This is the second straight year we spent our wedding anniversary apart - last year I was at training for work and she had lacrosse practice (have I mentioned before what an incredible athlete she is? I don't think I have). It's the kind of day where we should be going out to celebrate and then watching our wedding video together, reliving the memories of what was undoubtedly the best day of my life. Instead, I am here, wondering why the hell the 104th mismanaged their personnel and called us off the IRR; why, when they told HRC they didn't need us, we were still kept on for this mission.

I shouldn't be so negative. Things could be worse and we're both young and healthy. There's no doubt in my mind that we are both the center of each other's world and for that I should be extremely thankful. I also know that this time next year we'll both laugh at how crappy my luck is and celebrate our best anniversary yet. It's just hard sometimes to be positive and I think I'll let myself be sad today, so that each year after this I can remember how lucky I am.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Errors have been made. Others will be blamed.

The title of this blog comes from a list of quotes I have hanging near my desk. The quotes are funny and amusing, but, sadly, too many of them seem applicable. Like this one: "Chaos, panic, and disorder - my work here is done." Why does this seem both funny AND relevant? (for the full list of these hilarious phrases, click here)

Well, I've officially started taking steps to reduce the amount of chaos and disorder I leave this place in. Construction is starting on a massive project on the eastern edge of the depot, and will soon start on the refurbishment and rebuilding of about 25 warehouses. Money has been allocated to bring in power lines, reducing our reliance on generators that only work about 60% of the time. Next month, a brand new life support area, to include living quarters and dining facility, will be complete for our Iraqi Army members. This is especially exciting because it means the days of the raw human sewage trench are numbered. Yes, it's as gross as it sounds; it's green and I think it speaks to me sometimes. In addition to being responsible for these projects, I recently started another type of project that I think will really benefit the operations of this place.

Prior to being called back into the Army, I was certified through my company as a Six-Sigma Green belt. Six Sigma is basically a structured approach to solving problems that relies heavily on the use of statistical analysis. I really enjoyed these types of projects, particularly because I love working with data. After 5 months here, we've started to accumulate some performance and historical data, and we have recently been asked to share this data with our higher HQ. When I started talking to our Ops officer (CPT NAP) about it, a light-bulb went off in my head. Why not turn this into a structured project, one in where we have a defined problem and the data we collect can be analyzed and used to actually improve things here, instead of just being used a reporting requirement. He was all for it, and so a few days ago we 'officially' started a Green belt project to help the Iraqi Army, complete with multi-national team members. If you told me last year after I completed my initial green belt training that I would be using it in Iraq doing a project with the Iraqi Army, I would probably would have either laughed at you or tackled you, or maybe both.

If I seem a little excited about this, I am. I like structured problem solving and the thought of using some of my civilian skills while I am over here is an even bigger bonus. We'll see how it goes, but I am excited about the potential, and anything that gives me more motivation cant really be a bad thing, can it?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Time keeps on tickin'

And then I was back in Taji, back to my daily routine, back to trying to figure out ways to convince the Iraqi's to work more efficiently, a little harder, and a little longer. There was a new wrinkle to this challenge when I returned from the IZ, though: Ramadan. Ramadan is the 9th month on the Islamic calendar and represents the month that the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. To observe this, Muslim's increase many of their religious activities and fast from sunrise to sunset. Ok - this is an abbreviated explanation of what Ramadan truly is, so if you are really interested in learning more I encourage you to read this (ps - I love wikipedia). So what does this mean to us? Well, their fasting is an all-inclusive fast, meaning that they don’t even drink water. This is a huge challenge to us since Ramadan is in September - it’s still hotter than Hades out and a collection of dehydrated Soldiers doesn't do much to increase productivity. Many of them will drink water though, since there is an exception in their religion for sick people and people who must break the fast. (I wonder if this is like an exception to policy letter? Hopefully it didn't require as many signatures!) The briefing we get about Ramadan is kind of funny, too. We basically get this PowerPoint show chronicling the events of Ramadan past, and then reminding us not to drink or eat in front of the Iraqi's for this month. Now, this is fine for those people who might only work with the Iraqi's in passing, but when we are out in the 100 degree heat sweating alongside them, its kind of hard not to drink any water! Luckily our counterparts understand this and encourage us to continue to drink water. I think we are best just not being blatant about it, like sloshing it around or pouring it on each other (for some reason the "freak gasoline fight accident" scene from the movie Zoolander keeps popping into my head).

So as I settled into a nice post-vacation melancholy caused by sudden lack of having fun and being back to work, I received a huge pick me up from everyone at home. As i got back into my room, our mail person called me and told me he had some boxes for me and that he would bring them by. When he pulled up and I looked in the truck, my mouth dropped. "Are they all for me", I asked? He just nodded his head. There were probably 14 boxes, none of them really tiny, and they literally took up the whole back of his truck. After we unloaded them I excitedly started tearing into them, and then stopped myself. I turned on my computer to see if Rache was online, because I like to share my excitement with her, and she really loves birthdays so I knew she'd want to hear about what I got. So I sat there and opened each box, describing most of them to Rache through Google chat. The best part was that everything in the boxes was wrapped, so it was almost like I was really at home opening presents on my birthday, even though it was 3 days past my actual birthday. Which was fine, because over here time is pretty flexible, so I just let myself pretend it was my birthday and I was at home with my family in our dining room, the smells of my dad's cooking still lingering and smoke from the birthday cake in the air; everyone excitedly staring at me as I opened their present and trying to judge my reaction. I can tell you, I was truly excited and happy about each and everything I opened, from Cailey's Eagles paraphernalia to the sneakers Rachael sent me, and even the hula pineapple I got from the Gliemi's. Mumsey sent me an awesome pillow and the chocolate truffle's were better than birthday cake, Mom! I also got a big surprise when in my parent’s box I found a Nintendo Wii and two games! This was part birthday present and part gift from our local republican party (thanks George and Sue!). I was really happy about this gift because it wasn't just for me - I am planning on setting it up in a common area for everyone in our unit to use and play against each other; when I showed everyone the box they all got as excited as I was and clamored for me to set it up so we could play. I also got to give everyone some J&J products as I got 3 huge boxes of stuff from work, perfect because we can never have too much hand sanitizer or Visine! I got an awesome T-shirt from Yosemite and got to brag about climbing the rock in the card Cathy and Jeff sent me; some great new books from Mom-Mom, a PSP game from Mrs. B, and about 100 other things that would probably take up 2 more pages if I listed them. What a pick me up! Oh yea - Laura and J - loved the surprise!

I can almost taste being home for leave, but at the same time I am starting to see a light at the end of this deployment and so my motivation has picked up considerably. I realize I won’t get to see alot of my projects through to the end but just having them started under my watch will be something to feel good about. With all that we have going on, time is really starting to move quick and before I know it, I'll be at home blogging about the latest beer I made!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The IRR Vacation

As I watched the creamy-white foam cascade into black, my mouth began to water. Here it was, a creamy, dark, delicious Guinness, my 1st beer in about 138 days (not that I was counting). I could hardly wait to take my first sip, and when I did, I wasn’t disappointed. The aroma was just a hint of sweet malt, and the taste was creamy smooth, starting with a sweet taste and ending on a slight roasting note with just a hint of coffee. I sat down in my chair and turned my attention to the Eagles-Packers game on the 62” TV and thought out loud, “Ahhh. This feels great.”

No, I wasn’t at home or anywhere near the US. I was in a little country called Qatar, on a US base that now serves as an R&R destination for deployed Soldiers. It’s called a 4-day pass, but as we found out it quickly turns into an 8-day or longer absence from your place of duty. Actually, as I write this in the IZ, I have been away from Taji for 10 days. Granted, I am still getting work done here and spent a day doing work before I left, but I have been gone from that place for 10 whole days. I almost feel bad . . . almost.

The trip started with a quick and easy convoy from Taji to Baghdad. Once there, I met up with my IRR friends who I’d be going on pass with and we took an armored transport to Baghdad International (BIAP). It’s always great to see my friends, and we had been planning this 4-day pass since the beginning of our deployment. We joked around that 11 IRR CPTs on vacation was a dangerous combo, and it was – but in a good way. We stayed the night in BIAP and then flew to Qatar, where we would soon discover that the bad luck cloud of the IRR had not followed us.

We arrived at approximately 10pm and started the process of checking in and going through customs. Although we were noticeably lighter without our weapons (which we left behind) and stripped down body armor, there was another weight that stuck to us like sand on wet skin – humidity. There air was thick, and while waiting in line my friend Colleen (also from Delaware County) turned around and said it felt exactly like a summer in southeastern PA. We didn’t mind, though, because we knew that the humidity meant we were near water! (Actually, Qatar is surrounded by it, as you can see in this map.) Once through customs we sat in a big air conditioned tent, watched some college football, and were told that the following day would be our day 0. We all exchanged surprised look for two reasons: 1. This meant our 4-day pass would be a 5-day pass and 2. The IRR as a group just experienced some good luck. Good start to our week.

That night the guys in our group stayed up until 5:30am watching college football on the aforementioned 62” TV. Best part of the night was watching PSU beat Notre Dame; we called it a night once LSU went up 24-0 on Va. Tech. The next we got to sleep in, and then we all went to the pool and Chili’s for lunch. Chicken Fajita’s never tasted so good, although I think it was mainly because they didn’t come from a DFAC and no one was calling it “chow”. It also didn’t hurt that I was in “civilian” clothes, otherwise known as shorts and a t-shirt.

After the pool we did some research and found out that the Eagles-Packers game was one of two games being shown that night. The problem, however, is that there was only one TV. Being the dedicated fan that I am, I set out to commandeer the TV – 2 and half hours before kickoff. Since no football was on at that time, I was the only person in the area and had complete control of the remote. As kickoff approached, however, the situation took a turn for the worse when I was I startled out of my pre-game coma by someone shouting “What game are we watching?” I looked at my watch and saw that there was only 5 minutes till kickoff; I doubled checked the channel and when I turned around I saw a packed house. All of the chairs were filled and people were standing to watch the game. When I replied that we’d be watching the Eagles game, things got kind of ugly. Several people shouted “What?? You have to be kidding me!” One individual confronted me with “You can’t seriously think that will be a better game then Pats-Jets!” My only reply – “I’ve been here for 2 and a half hours. If you guys wanted to see your Pats that bad you would have beat me to the remote. If you want to change the channel, your gonna have to pry the changer out of my hands.” I heard a few grumblings but no challengers, so I turned around happy to watch the game. Not surprisingly, there was quite a few Packers fans during the game, and my determination was rewarded by my Eagles fumbling two punts, which lead to 2 Green Bay scores, and a loss. Awesome.

The next few days were similar – hang out by the pool, drink our 3 beers at night (yes, there was a beer limit in place), and hang out and joke around. The beer was good – Guinness and Kilkenny were the best two they had, but it got me thinking a little about my beer-making hobby at home, and I think that when I am done with this blog I will start one about all the different beers I make. We did spend one day out on the gulf where we got to do water sports and that was a really good time. Check my pictures link for some funny shots! It was after this trip that I discovered someone out there who can beat me in the radio game - Joanna, another CPT who won the IRR lottery. We just happened to be discussing music and who sings what songs when we both noticed that the other person had a good depth of music knowledge; our conversation naturally turned competitive. Since there was a band playing that night, we took the competition to task, where she promptly whipped me 8-4 before I conceded the victory. It was disheartening, but at the same time impressive. I haven’t lost in a long time . . . .JoHa, we will play again!

We did actually go shopping, twice. Yes, Rachael, I went shopping on vacation. Call me crazy, but I enjoyed it. The malls (yes, malls) were a decent size and American style, but they sure werent americans shopping. I guess you could say it was like a life-size dominoes set-up - the women dressed in all black, and the men in all white. According to one of our guides, the citizens of Qatar receive over $100,000 a year just for being a natural citizen of the country. They dont have to lift a finger and still make 6-digits a year. So naturally, all of the cars in the parking lot were Porche, BMW, Mercedes, Range Rover, etc, and all of the people in the malls were clean and refined - a stark difference from what we've been seeing in Iraq. Maybe one day Iraq can figure out how to become like this . . .

So now I am back in Baghdad, but I don’t feel that much more refreshed and ready to charge back into work. It was awesome being around my friends for a week and talking to Rachael every night, and for some reason it just made me want to go home more. I’ve talked before about how lucky I am to have met this group of people, but this trip just made it even more obvious. Luckily, I feel myself getting back into the mental state of acceptance as I do some work around here in the IZ, so when I do get back to Taji I should be ready to jump right back in. Is it weird that I miss some of my Iraqi counterparts more than some (one, actually) of the Americans?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Things are still frustrating in my little sector of Iraq. However, elsewhere, things are going well. So well, in fact, it seems that the Shia militia is taking some time off. This is good news! Why isn't there more coverage of it?? We didn't even know here, and we supposedly have a few members of JAM working for us (no, seriously, but that of course is rumor). In addition to that, I've talked to a few of my Marine buddies out West, and the reports there are even better. This is very positive news; news that shows a certain strategy is working. However, I am not qualified to make any assessments about how that level of strategy is working. All I know is what i see on the ground and what I hear from other Soldiers; and what I hear is that things are looking up.

Actually, the same can be said for our operations here. After I spent a few days in the IZ, I got a much better picture of how things are going to pan out here. I spent much of my time running around with another IRR CPT who has way to much responsibility (the joke amongst us IRR call-ups is that, despite our attitudes, we actually are responsible for way more then we should be.) We were able to clarify many of the funding issues I have been having, and had several meetings discussing how the Depot should look post-construction. If you look at COL TS's blog linked on the right, you can read about how close we are to having a reliable power source. This will be a huge upgrade and will definitely give the Iraqi's something to feel good about. I was happy to finally feel like progress is being made, and my attitude upon returning has been noticeably better.

I don't have much more to write about but I wanted to post a quick update. I have been traveling back and forth from Baghdad more as I try and get some of our projects online, so there might be a lag in between posts. I have started a countdown until I come home for leave - just about 2 months now! Hopefully I will feel inspired and write again soon.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


As Marvin Gaye's voice crooned through my head phones, I closed my eyes and all of the sudden I was in a different place. "Mother, mother. There's too many of you crying . .." It was the happiest day of my life; I was dancing with my mom and as I glanced over at my beautiful bride, all I could think was, I am truly a lucky man. I opened my eyes and stared at the cracks my ceiling, stuck back in a reality I couldn't drag myself out of for more than a couple minutes at a time.

That song, which I hadn't listened to for a long time, really got me thinking though. It got me thinking about all of the things back home I missed; all the people back home that have showered me with support and care packages and have really shown how much they care about me; and that despite being where I am, I am a truly lucky man.

After returning from Afghanistan, I didn't think there was anything I would take for granted anymore. I think my favorite thing when I got back last time was a couch and a TV and the ability to take a long shower. However, I've once again realized that I did indeed take things for granted. So, I decided that this blog entry would be a good opportunity to write about all the simple things I didn't even think about, that I now miss more than I thought would be possible.

I miss rainy days. Seriously. I haven't seen a raindrop in over 4 months. I miss the air before a big rainstorm; the way the rain seems to cleanse everything as it cascades down from the sky; the feel of it under you feet when you walk barefoot through the grass.

I miss my family. This seems obvious, but its what I miss about them that I took for granted. I miss going to my parents and just being immersed in total chaos of dogs, teenagers, and loud bantering back and forth between my siblings and parents. I miss the smell of my dad's cooking; garlic and onion and oil and anything that soaks in it. I miss my brothers and sisters, and wish I spent more time hanging out with them, because there is alot I know about them but even more I don't. I miss the talks I had with my parents, and the advice they continue to give me even though I already know everything. Almost as much, I miss the talks we didn't have because I knew that if I really needed them, they were just a short car ride away.

I miss sleeping in on Saturdays, and then getting up to do small chores around the house which usually ended in me and Rache laying on the couch watching nothing (aka the Hills or Real World). I miss the nights we could just walk over to our neighbors and play a board game and drink some weird beer I made, or just sit there and shoot the bull with them.

I miss driving at a semi-normal speed down a highway. I miss my car, the one with doors that dont weight 100 lbs because of all the armor.

I miss Chester licking my face profusely for no reason at all. I miss playing ball with him for hours and being as entertained as he is.

I miss running outside and breathing in clean air. I miss Pennsylvania! The fall is coming, and its always the best time of year because the trees turn from green to red and gold before coating the ground. I even miss raking the leaves on Thanksgiving with my Dad!

I miss tap water! It so nice being able to go to a faucet, pour a glass of water and then pound it. I miss WaWa and the convenience of being able to walk into a store and get basically anything I need.

I miss walking barefoot into my own shower and walking barefoot out of it to get changed. I miss feeling clean for longer than 5 minutes. I miss my clothes at home and the choices I had (even though I tend to wear the same thing often - I still had a choice about it!)

Last, but certainly not least, I miss Rachael. Another obvious thing, but its the not so obvious things I really miss. Her smile when she saw me for the first time for the day, and her hug when we got home from work; the conversations we had at dinner every night; her thoughtfulness when she went food shopping and always picked up my favorite things without even asking; her curly hair choking me when we layed on the couch watching TV; her loud, goofy laugh when she found something surprisingly funny; her insecurities about the things she can do absolutely, hands down better than anyone (like lax); and just the overall sense of peace I always feel when I am around her, like everything is ok.

Alright, so this post was sort of mushy, but it does surprise me in regards to the little things that make a big difference. It's also not nearly a complete list, and every now and then I will try and update when something new surprises me.

BONUS! Health and safety tip of the day: When driving up to an American checkpoint in Iraq, make sure you can be clearly identified as an American or friendly force. Just trust me on this one.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

More, Please

I'm starting to notice that my time in between posts is slowly drifting apart. This isn't intentional; I have just been extremely frustrated and I am trying to take a step back before blasting my frustration into the blog and turning it into a wordy bitch session. That being said, I need to write about a conversation I had with my Iraqi counterpart this past morning.

It was a dusty morning, already approaching 95 degrees at about 8:45am. We were driving through the depot, talking about how to better organize certain warehouses and what work needed to get done. The conversation then turned to physical improvements that needed to be done, and I got excited because this is an area I have been working since we arrived here. We have already rebuilt the guard houses that used to be falling apart, impressed with them; he stated that the warehouses needed to be fixed in a similar fashion. I happily responded that we have already contracted out the work, which would begin soon, and that they would be as good or better. He then declared that we need power; I again responded excitedly that we have plans to run power all throughout the depot, including street lamps and power to all the warehouses. In addition, I continued, we are going to have the roads repaired and the spaces in between each warehouse graded and leveled for drainage. On top of all that, we have another project for a central receiving and shipping point which will include new offices and a consolidated operations center.

I'm not sure what kind of reaction I was expecting, but I do know I wasn’t expecting what followed.

"What about water", he asked through the interpreter.

I was confused, and asked "Water? What do you mean? Drainage?"

"No", he replied. "Water from pipes. To all the warehouses."

I was stunned. "No, there are no plans to run water mains to all of the warehouses, sir. We've spent close to $100 million on the improvements I just talked about, and if we wanted to run water mains it would easily be double that. There just isn't enough money."

He looked disappointed, and replied simply "Well, we need it. We should have water mains here."

I was still bewildered by this request. "Sir, I've been over this with your boss. We talked about all of the improvements we'd need to make in order to run this depot more efficiently. Water mains are a luxury, and are so expensive that their cost cant possibly be justified."

He just shook his head, clearly not happy and disappointed. At this point I was starting to get angry, so I simply looked at my interpreter, shook my head and said nothing. I thought angrily to myself, Water mains? Is he kidding me?? Everywhere I have ever been, to include the US, we use bottled water. We provide them unlimited bottled water here. There is no need to wash in the warehouses since the living quarters are located somewhere else. I couldn't stop thinking about this verbal exchange all day. This wasn't the first time I've received feedback like this. Here we are in Iraq, pouring 100s of millions of US dollars into their military, their government, and their infrastructure; and yet, the only response I get from many when we describe our improvement projects is almost disappointment that we aren't doing MORE. It is the same with our role as advisors. We are constantly being asked to do MORE, to provide MORE fuel, MORE new equipment whenever theirs breaks, MORE work out of our own Soldiers.

This is what frustrates me, because I still feel like the more we give, the more they expect and the more they want. What I need to do is try and understand things from their perspective more. For example, water is a big deal to the Iraqi's. They grew up without having much water in their homes and learned from an early age to hoard it and store it whenever its available. Of course my counterpart is going to request it when he hears how much money we are spending on other things. That being said, they also need to understand what's important and what is nice to have. I still feel like we are failing in conveying mission criticality to them; too often we are scrambling to get things done and they are standing by watching. How do we solve this? How do we change our perspective to understand them better and not get so frustrated by their constant clamoring for more? We could leave, but I still don't think that’s the right answer (Actually we can’t leave, but you know what I mean). Problem is, I don't know what the right answer is, and I don't think anyone else does, either.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Ligers

No, the title is not referring to my uncle's fantasy football team that won the league championship last year (although they did). The Ligers are what we nicknamed ourselves after a surprise visit from a 10-person "Tiger" team sent by our higher HQ. What's a Tiger team? Great question, and it’s the same question we asked upon their arrival. The answer we received is that a Tiger Team is an ad-hoc team sent to fix problems where the current personnel are unable to do so themselves. Ohhh - so basically a group of our peers who have been working in an office for the last 3 months are sent to the field to fix problems they really don’t know much about. As you can tell, their arrival didn’t sit well with us, and so we called ourselves the Ligers, because a Liger will always beat a Tiger.

In actuality, neither group started off on the right foot, and to be fair to that group, we didn’t give them much of a chance. One of my good friends from 10th Mountain was one of the individuals on the team, but I didn't give her much preferential treatment (sorry!). It's hard for us to accept that after 3 months of living and working with the Iraqi's, a team of staff officers is going to come tell us how to solve all our problems. We've suffered through broken equipment, long periods of no power, lack of fuel, and countless other circumstances that have given us a bond with our Iraqi counterparts. We are just starting to really see how things work, and now we are being told everything is broke, falling apart at the seams and it’s more or less all our fault. So yea, we got pretty defensive.

During a negotiation I had with one of the team members, a light switch went off somewhere in my head. We were discussing fuel, and how they (the coalition) were going to put in a request to get us (the Iraqi unit) as much fuel as we ever needed. Well, this pissed me off. For the past 3 months we have been forcing the Iraqi's to manage their fuel situation on their own - and when they run out, there is no safety net from the coalition. Our experience with them has shown us that when we provide the safety net, they don't work as hard to manage their own situation. Why would they, when we'll just bail them out if they fail? Our negotiation hit a tense point, and the conversation then went like this:
After explaining the reason we didn't like to give them coalition fuel, I was asked, "So are you prepared to answer for failed missions and explain that you refused fuel?"

"Damn right I am", I snapped back. "You know what? That’s the problem here. We have a coalition-run HQ coordinating and commanding logistics down to Iraqi-run ground units. How can we make any progress that way??" At this point I barely paused to catch my breath, and the veins in the side of my head were beginning to pulse.

I continued on, "It's like this: If we fail to make a mission here, our coalition HQ comes down on the coalition advisor's here. Who, then, is coming down on the Iraqi's? That's supposed to be our job in a way, but do you really thing the Iraqi's are paying much heed when they know we'll be gone in 8 months?"

No response, so I drove forward. "What needs to happen is our HQ needs to put aside their arrogance and start letting the Iraqi's command the Iraqi's. Then, when a mission fails, have an Iraqi general come down hard on the Iraqi commanders here. These guys are lifers - you better believe they care when their commanding officers bring a shit storm down on them!"

"There's a difference between letting them fail, and letting them fail miserably. We can’t let them fail miserably", she finally replied in a tone to match mine.

"The hell we can’t!” I replied. "How are they ever going to learn otherwise?"

At this, the negotiations pretty much broke up; the other participants were beginning to stare and my voice was getting elevated. Thinking back on the conversation, though, neither of us was really right or wrong. She was absolutely correct in assuming we need fuel, and was simply trying to help me by providing a solution. As I tend to do, I over analyzed the situation and took some pent up feelings out on her. Here's the important part to me, though - there is a disconnect. The coalition wants mission accomplishment first and always, and are willing to throw resources to the Iraqi's to ensure that happens. However, as long as we continue to provide them with unending resources and safety nets, they'll never start depending on themselves to do it.

Where do we draw the line though? Fact is, there are American troops with each Iraqi unit, and if that Iraqi unit doesn't get what it needs, we hurt Americans. That fact is what drives us to continually bail out the Iraqis - we can’t, and won’t, let a mission fail when American lives are at stake. It’s also for this reason I have to somewhat concede the above argument. I obviously don't have all the answers, but I am pretty adept at identifying problems and putting together working solutions. I finally pinpointed our problem here, what I'll dub as the great disconnect, and I feel helpless to correct it.

That being said, we have a whole of working solutions in place. Everything from increased manpower (we are at about 35% strength on the Iraqi side), to longer working hours, to complete refurbishments of the crumbling warehouses. A year from now, this place WILL be better then when we arrived. The question is, will it be good enough?

Friday, August 10, 2007

The reoccurring question

The sweat rolling down my back had turned from a leaky faucet to the Tigris River by mile 1. It was 122 degrees out and I couldn’t help but think that I was wearing an oven as opposed to body armor. As the sand blew into my face and the hotspots on my feet grew into raging inferno's, I again asked myself, "What the hell am I doing here?"

The past couple weeks have been interesting. Not really a good interesting, although we did have our moments of laughing at the absurdity of our situation. No, it was interesting because I think I can now write a book on poor leadership and failed execution, from the top of the chain straight through to us.

It began on a Thursday night, when my favorite senior advisor came knocking on my door at 10pm demanding that I write a justification for why we need vehicles, phones, and computers. Not liking the dumbfounded smirk that overtook my face, he snapped and mumbled something to me that I am sure would have pissed me off had I been paying attention. I, however, was too lost in my own thoughts, which were screaming at me to make a smart-ass remark like "No problem, Sir! I'll get the justification for why we need oxygen to you right after that!"

It wasn't a hard document to write; we are the main logistics hub of the Iraqi Army, so without simple communications like computers and phones we would be almost completely ineffective. Vehicles are needed in part because we have live 3.5 miles from the depot, and in part because the depot itself is over 5 sq. miles. Without vehicles we would have to walk to each of our 70+ warehouses, which would take an unnecessary amount of time and be really inefficient. So I wrote the justification, and the next morning we lost everything.

There are alot of things that need to be explained here. I'll start with how and why we lost all of our stuff. Apparently, a general from cubicle-land (i.e. the IZ) ordered that all outposts where Americans were advising Iraqi's must turn in their vehicles and equipment to the Iraqi Army. This order sat in limbo for a couple of weeks and then all of the sudden people starting saying, crap - he's serious. Our leader's crap he's serious moment apparently came at 10pm on Thursday night when he asked for the justification. I can tell you from past experience that trying to justify something the night before is usually a bad idea. As it turned out, this experience held true.

I can understand why the general wanted this. Since we are embedded with the Iraqi's we are forced to use much of their equipment to help them do their mission. Problem is, we are doing most of their mission. So by turning everything back in and leaving us helpless, we more or less leave the Iraqi's to do their own mission. Here's the problem with that, though: All of our orders come from the American Headquarters! So, in order for the Iraqi's to do their own work, they'd have to be able to coordinate with the American HQ element, which, of course, they can’t do. So for 5 days, we walked to work, advised the Iraqi's on what we thought needed to be done, and the walked home. It was almost impossible to get anything done since we essentially blacked out from communications, and therefore had no access to real-time logistical requirements. I didnt really mind the walking part; there are thousands of other troops here who have to do alot of walking in alot more dangerous situations, so if this is as bad it gets for me I am a very lucky man (although those of you who know me also know that I am dying inside here and would give my left nut to be on the streets!)

After 5 days of absolute mission failure, our command decided that we needed at least basic access to phones and computers. Brilliant! They also gave us American-bought vehicles for transportation, although I am still walking occasionally. I like walking with my Soldiers - it's sucks, so its bonding time. There is alot of work to be done now, since we fell way behind during those 5 days. There is also talk of us moving from an advisor role to full time operations, since the Iraqi logistics system is still perceived to be broke. However, I still struggle to understand how we can advise them when we operate under an American command. No progress is going to be made until the American staff starts advising the Iraqi staff, and logistics are coordinated by the Iraqi's, not the Americans. It's odd how no one seems to realize this. It will also be extremely disheartening if we have to take over daily operations. This will set us back at least a year and will throw out almost all of the trust we’ve built with our counterparts. I do agree that things here need to be done differently, but much of that has to do with leadership (both sides). The Iraqi leadership is, well . . .shady, to put it nicely. In any event, I hope someone up higher soon realizes this and doesn’t set us back in our advisory roles.

I hope to update again soon and post new pics, especially since its been about two weeks since my last post. Until then, I am going to practice biting my tongue a little more!

Friday, July 27, 2007


As the temperature climbs above 120 and the days seem to get longer and more frustrating, I can’t help but find myself looking forward to the start of training camp for the Philadelphia Eagles. There are a hundred other things I worry about on a daily basis, all admittedly more important, yet I can’t help from fantasizing about Brian Westbrook reaching 1,000 yards rushing this season and the Eagles playoff possibilities. I keep telling myself - once football season is here, this deployment will fly by. Since we get a handful of selected programs broadcast here via the Armed Forces Network, I will most surely get to see at least one football game per week, which will be something nice to look forward to.

My excitement for football season, however, pales in contrast to the excitement I see over here for the Iraqi National Soccer team. This is no joke - things basically shut down when the games are on so the Iraqi Soldiers can watch it on TV. On Wednesday, when the Iraqi team played the South Koreans, I needed one of the Iraqi Soldiers to load up a truck to prepare for the next day's shipment. We gave him instructions on what needed to be done, but when I saw his facial expression I stopped to think for a minute. Here was one of the better soldiers we had; dependable, reliable, hardly complains, willing to get the mission done. Although he was trying to hide his disappointment, when we asked him to do this job he readily agreed. His smile, though, betrayed him. Through his smile I could see clenched teeth; his eyes were squinted and his jawline taught. It was the smile of a proud man who just saw his dog get put to rest and he doesn't want to cry in front of anyone. (yes, dad, he looked strangely similar to a face I've seen you make!) So after he walked out the door to get started I ran after him and asked if he could get it done tomorrow morning, instead. I know this puts me at least 2 weeks back in getting them to do things today, not tomorrow, but sometimes you have to give a little to get a little. The expression on his face was worth it, too - relieved joy and a genuine smile. The he took off at a full sprint to watch the rest of the game.

The Iraqi's won, by the way. One habit that we had to mitigate for this game was the celebratory fire - luckily, they listened, because they realize we have guns too and might mistake their celebration for an attack. The article I linked to makes a great point about a united Iraq on the field and divided off the field. It may be a bit dramatic, but its journalism so it needs to be. I do agree with it, however. If there is one thing the Iraqi people can and will unite together for, its soccer. They play here everyday, and they play in the leagues sponsored by the coalition side of base. We escort the team of 12 over to play, and then escort the team of 200 Soldiers over to cheer on their team. There is not a single team that plays in these little tournaments that has the cheering section like our Iraqi's do.

So now this Sunday I have a different type of football game to look forward too. Iraq plays Saudi Arabia in the championship game, and the buzz around here is tremendous. It feels like being back in Philadelphia before the NFC Championship game - excitement, optimism, and brotherly love abound. Not exactly the emotions we encounter on a daily basis, yet a soccer team has brought them out. So there is some dramatic journalism from me; but sports, especially football, seem to bring that out in me. Except it looks like it's not just me that football has that kind of impact on . . .

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Summertime Blues

ughhh . . . I groan and roll over to look at my clock.
It's 3:15am, and the Artillery detachment is sending out some care packages to our boys outside the wire. No surprise there; the artillery men send out their lovin' every night, and since we are almost right next to them I get to hear every round up close and personal. The only question is what time and how often. The nightly barrage goes on...

-thud- BOOOM!!
I couldn't tell if I was dreaming or I heard rocks being thrown at my wall. I wipe the haze from eyes and check my clock - 1 something AM. I sit up to drink some water and then I hear something I wasn’t expecting:
ughh. . .why are you yelling at me to take cover after the fact? I wonder to no one in particular. I step outside (probably not what I am supposed to do) to a hazy, smoke filled night. The moon is slightly orange and is casting an eerie glow over the gravel lot outside my building. Someone else is up too.
"Hey, glad the Big Voice told us to take cover 30 seconds AFTER the fact", Nap calls to me.
"Ha - yea - good thing", I reply before I make a quick stop in the porta-pottie and go back to sleep minutes later.

These are a couple typical nights for us here. Nothing exciting, just the sounds of the battle going on around us. Our job isn't out there at night; it begins the next day with our Iraqi counterparts. Everyday we work with them, side by side, imparting what knowledge we have and trying to help them do their part better. Many nights I wish I was out there with my coalition counterparts, fighting a battle I know a little better; but I'm not, and many days it’s hard for me to accept that my battle is in getting the Iraqi's to sustain themselves without our help.

The other night my LT buddy and I were sitting outside, watching the Apache's fly overhead and listening to the artillery go out (at least, we always say its outgoing). We started talking about how far from home we are and what we're doing here. (I am 6,300+ miles from home, by the way). The conversation started off almost philosophically:
"Dude, do you know how far from home we are?” he asked me.
"6,322 miles", I replied.
"Yea, that’s far. What the hell are we doing here? Do you know how hard it would be for us to get home if there were no planes?"
I paused. "Probably close to a year. We'd most likely have to hump it up to the Mediterranean Sea, catch a freighter, and then sail the Oceans home."
He sighed deeply. "Yea. That would suck. Can you imagine being a roman back in the day? Or trying to get back to America at that time?"
"Yea, but if we were trying to get back to America then, we'd most likely be American Indians and we'd have no business here in the 1st place."
"True enough", he answered, and there ended our deep philosophical discussion.

After we pondered that for a minute, we started talking about whether what we're doing will have any benefit to us in the civilian world once we're done. I wished I could have answered him positively, but I just couldn't, really. He is a Construction Engineer, and I am a Chemical Engineer. We're both advising the Iraqi Army on logistics. We tried to find some benefits; he is heading up a major project to issue the entire Iraqi Army M-16s, and I am handling contracts totaling 100s of millions of US dollars. Still, it’s hard to say how that will help us advance to the next level in our civilian jobs. I personally feel like I've taken at least a two year step backward; the promotion I worked two years for was rescinded because I couldn't fill it due to my recall, and I was just notified recently that our plant is undergoing major layoffs. The layoffs shouldn't affect my job, since I am on military status, but I know it will probably take at least a year to get back to where I was before I left. That's not even getting into how people will feel that I still have a job because I was on military status. I know, and most people wont come out and say that, but realistically, deep down, some will be thinking it.

We ended the conversation on a positive, though. We are here doing what not many other people get an opportunity to do. We're basically helping to build an Army from the ground up and learning alot about ourselves and others in the process. Heck, if we ever go into consulting we will honestly be able to say that we have done consulting work under the harshest conditions and across seemingly insurmountable cultural differences. So we ended by saying that we were underglorified, underpaid consultants, and that if all else goes to crap, at least we have that. Yea . . . Sure . . .

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Wishful thinking

Good News! Apparently, I can come home now! No, seriously - just ask the Iraqi Prime Minister, who says we can go anytime we want. I want, I want!

Honestly though, this article is frustrating as hell but not at all a surprise. Even at my level, the Iraqi's seem to hate metrics or benchmarks. "In-shallah", or God-willing, is not just a phrase they utter when they dont want to do something; it is a way of life. Their culture, which stems from a mixture of Islamic religion, oppressive governments and a harsh environment, has ingrained this into them. It's easy to say they are lazy or unmotivated, but it takes a unique perspective to be able to step back and see why they are lazy and unmotivated. Islam teaches its followers to trust in God and he will take care of them. However, it also says that a person must make his own fortune, much like Christianity and Judaism. Throw in an oppressive government, though, and now we can see how people start leaning on their religion a little more; ok, lets not push the issue lest we get killed, lets sit back and let God take care of what He will. Thirdly - it is damn hot here. The heat at noon, combined with blowing sand, almost makes ME want to stop working, throw my hands up and declare "In-shallah!".

Let's call a spade a spade, though. They are not motivated or hard working by any American standard. I know plenty of people working in Arizona and So. Cali that work their asses off daily, despite similar temperatures. Don't get me wrong, there are some here that work hard; unfortunately, I don't see many of those working hard in an Iraqi uniform. I know that there are Iraqi people who have a good work ethic - some of our local contractors, for example, work 10 hour days or more, straight through the heat of the day, and do darn good work. Maybe it's just the sub-culture I find myself trapped in.

So what are we doing here? Well, as I see it, we are trying to give them a system to use, provide the training for that system, and then set some benchmarks to see if they can use that system. The problem with the Iraqi Prime minister’s statement, then, is that he is pissed about the benchmarks. Well, if we don't have any benchmarks, how do we know your getting it?? Another comment that's funny to me is the PM supposedly is frustrated with Gen. Petraeus, because "he works along a 'purely American vision.'" Hello, CPT Obvious? This is common sense calling. The general is an American! We can only train you on American systems because that's all we know! He also talks about arming the militia, but I am not close enough to that situation to comment on it.

We aren't going to change their culture, and those who think we have to are doomed to failure and frustration. The problem is that we, as Americans, don't know how to institute a system to a culture so vastly different then ours. So, I'm sure everyone wants to know what I think - should we be here? I think i am going to cop out on answering that one for now. On one hand, after reading this article (and quite possibly before reading this article), I say see ya later alligator! On the other hand, I've started something here; I'd like to work it a little more before giving up on it. Of course, the latter thought is the one I need to keep for my own sanity, since I don't have a choice in the matter - I'm here, like it or not.