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!