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.