Friday, July 27, 2007

Football

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

BOOM!-thud-
ughhh . . . I groan and roll over to look at my clock.
BOOM!-thud-
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:
WAHHHH "INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING! All personnel take cover!" WAHHHH! "INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING!"
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.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Change of Topic

Sometimes in life, we meet people who have such a profound effect on us that they change the very core of our personalities. Obviously, our parents have that type of effect on us, but there is usually someone else who shapes who we are and who we become. For some, its a teacher; for others, a coach; and for many in the military, it's a drill sergeant. As for me, I consider the person who had this effect on me a cross between a coach and a drill sergeant, and most definitely a friend.

Coach Chris Wakely was the head coach of the Men's Lacrosse team when I was at Widener University, waaay back in 1997. It's ironic, too, that now I am writing about him as such an influential person in my life, because from 1997-2000 we usually just referred to him as "The Man in Black" (he always wore a black gore-tex jacket and pants to practice), or worse. Of course at the time, we thought we had it bad; looking back and realizing that he was coaching a team of all 18-20 year old, cocky freshman and sophomores, I think we'd agree now that he was the one who had it rough.

There was nothing quite like pre-season. This was the two months prior to the actual season that our lacrosse team went from 40 strong to about 20 by our 1st game. This is an especially telling fact when you realize that there were no cuts - this is just the number of kids that had the intestinal fortitude and desire to make it through a full season. Coach always said he'd rather go into battle with 15 men who want to play hard then 40 boys who want to prance around and look good. Boy did he mean that. One of the best (worst) conditioning drills we did was called Phase I, a name that still gives me chills when I hear it said. It involved a one-mile warm up jog, and then went something like this: Sprint a lap in 90 seconds (3 times) - the rest in between each lap was 10 push ups. Then we had to sprint a half-mile in 3 minutes, followed by a 20 push-up rest; two 90 second laps with a 10 push up rest in between each, followed by a 3/4 mile sprint in 270 seconds, and a 30 push up rest; and finally, one more 90 second lap (10 push ups to follow). If even one person missed the time cut for one lap, we had to re-do that lap at the end. We did Phase I every week until the start of the season.

Why is that important? It's important because Coach preached constantly that we would win games by being the absolute best conditioned team on the field; that in a 4th quarter face-off, when the other team was tugging their shorts and sucking wind out of fatigue, we'd be standing up straight like we just went for a walk in the park. He showed that when he said something, he'd follow through on it and it would help us; the evidence was in 5-straight conference titles. He also taught us that nothing in life comes easy - if we wanted to win, we'd have to work our asses off for it. Work our asses off we did - Phase I was typically followed up by a normal practice, just to get us used to what it was like playing tired. He taught us that mistakes are made when we are fatigued, and then taught us how to play through that pain. He was relentless, but he cared about us.

I think that's what struck me the most - the relentless attitude on the field, and the caring guy off the field. He was genuinely concerned with our lives - from school and grades, to our family involvement in the team, all the way through graduation and our job search. After graduation many players came back to help, and even though he left after my senior year to coach at Lehigh, we kept in contact. We'd talk not just about lacrosse, but how I was doing in the Army and my job search when I got out, married life (for him and me), and how his children were.

About a month ago I got a shocking email from Coach Wakely. He was stepping down as Lehigh's Head Lacrosse coach to concentrate on his ongoing battle with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It was hard news for me to take - Coach Wakely was always the picture of strength to me, the guy who came in from running 15 miles before practice with blood on his shirt and didn't think twice about it. Thinking about him with this condition . . . just doesn't seem right.

Rachael and I began doing the MS walk every year a few years back when her assistant lacrosse coach at Princeton was diagnosed with it. It’s a huge event and generates alot of needed support for the research of MS. Unfortunately, doing an MS walk in downtown Baghdad might not generate as much support as Coach deserves. Fortunately, one of the scores of people affected by this news of Coach has organized a team for the MS bike ride, called the "MS City to Shore Bike Tour". If you'd like to help the MS cause and donate, I implore you to visit the site of the The Wakely Flyers riding team and donate to the cause of MS. I will also put the link in a sidebar on this page for when this blog gets buried in the archives.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Onion

The honeymoon phase is over. We are slowly realizing that this place is sort of like an onion - everytime we peel away one layer, we discover another layer underneath - and they all make us want to cry. For example, a few posts ago I wrote about my frustration with the Iraqi major who insists on turning away all of the supplies before they even enter our compound. I couldn't figure out why he was so stringent on the quality of products, and it was driving me crazy. He was turning away perfectly good supplies for no reason! One day I'd finally had enough. In the 115 degree heat, we spent 45 minutes climbing in and out of trucks looking at what we were about to receive. Everything looked good to me, no different then what we'd get on the coalition side of base. The Iraqi's, however, didn't think so, and tried to turn the trucks away. After a heated argument, I made them allow the trucks in because I wasn't going to be responsible for jeopardizing the drivers’ safety. Seeing my frustration, one Iraqi that I trust pulled me aside and gave me some inside info, which was later verified through another source who came to me in confidence. Apparently, there are some Iraqi's here who demand bribes from the drivers in order to let them into our compound to deliver their supplies. Most drivers pay, because if they are turned away they face the repercussion of not being paid by their employer, with the added danger of having to drive the dangerous roads. So, now I have to figure out how to stop this. It seems to be a directive from some of the top officers, which makes changing the procedure difficult. Some people think it’s just a cultural thing and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Great attitude! Let’s promote corruption by taking the attitude that if we can’t stop it, ignore it! Well, I refuse to accept this and am currently looking for ways to catch them in the act. Easier said then done, though.

To further improve my morale, I learned the reason I was called up was due to gross personnel mismanagement by the reserve unit I am attached to. Here's the story, confirmed by the unit: When notified to deploy, the 104th scoured their list of qualified candidates and cross leveled and determined that they didn't have enough Captains to fill mission requirements. They put a request into Human resource Command (HRC), who proceeded to fill the unit needs by recalling the requested officers from the Inactive Ready Reserve. The rest is obviously history - I got my telegram and reported as ordered and here I am. Here's the catch, though. After receiving the requested fill from HRC, the 104th realized that they did in fact have enough officers to fill the mission. So, they contacted HRC and told them that the IRR recalls were no longer necessary because they had enough people. The response from HRC: Sorry, too late. You asked for them, so you got them. So what did the 104th do? They sent home their own people. *Note* - This happened while were still in Ft. Riley, so I try not to dwell on this too much, but I do find it disheartening at times, particularly when I talk to Rachael or my parents and think about how much I miss them. Oh well - just another stepping stone in life I guess. This time next year I'll be laughing at the situation and have an even further appreciation for all that I'm blessed with in life!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Groundhog day

It's official - everyday is the same here. So instead of writing about how much I love the always sunny, blue skies (I never thought I'd miss a rainy day!) and the 115 degree heat, I figured I'd post a video and some pics of me shooting some Iraqi weapons. There are some things going on behind the scenes here - I'll post more on that later! video

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

4th of July

I wanted to take a minute to wish everyone a happy 4th of July, a special day to Americans as it symbolizes our independence. I'd also like to say thank you to a few special groups for ensuring our freedom continues:

- to our gate and tower guards: these guys man checkpoints and guard towers 12 hours a day in full body armor, fighting heat, boredom, and complacency to make sure that no harm comes to the thousands of troops within the perimeter.

- to the maneuver units: these guys are out every night and day, dodging IEDs and bullets to do raids and searches so they can root out the insurgents here in Iraq.

- to the support units: especially the guys who truly believe in support first. While not out doing raids every day, still risking their neck in log convoys getting the supplies where they need to be.

- last but not least, to everyone back home, who are the reason all of us over here continue to work hard day in and day out, and who are hopefully enjoying a parade, a barbecue, and a nice, cold, frosty beer - because I know that's what I'd be doing if I was home!

Happy 4th of July everyone!