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.