Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Quality problems

As I drove up to the "new" building with the fading paint, I tried to rationalize what I was seeing. A week earlier, the building had new paint applied to the outside, just prior to the new roof being installed. To see that same building with half a good paint job and half no paint, I went through every scenario I could think to justify why. Maybe they found a new color they like better. Maybe they need to re-seal the walls and take the paint off before hand. Or maybe, just maybe, they lined the freakin' roof up flush with the wall face so that when it rained, the water cascaded down the face of the wall and washed away all the paint. As I got to the edge of the building, I looked up and saw that this was in fact the case. To make matters worse, the roof wasn't lined up straight all the way down, meaning that in some spots it was lined up so the water ran straight into the middle of the wall, which I hear is great for the durability of the cheap brick inside.

The problems didn't end there. In one area we are constructing a 600,000 m2 yard for all of the traffic that comes through here. This way, instead of trying to drive through the mud, the convoys can deliver their supplies in an area with a stabilized, modified sub-base. What I saw out there, however, were several pools of water - which are great for swimming, but bad for drainage. The other problem I saw was that they were compacting the sub-base 30 cm at a time. Now, I built my own patio at home, which of course means I am an expert at compacting sub-base. I compacted my sub-base every 3cm, and I was just building a patio to withstand a gas grill and my fat ass after a few beers. This is an area that will have to stand up to the weight of tanks, trucks, and the occasional mortar. Unbelievable Not surprisingly, I used the same equipment for my 600 m2 area that they are using for one 100 times that size.

I've heard of similar problems at other sites as well. It seems that if left to their own devices, the contractors will use the minimum amount of quality that they can possibly get away with. Part of this is because of the "lowest bidder" policy on how we award a contract. Obviously, their bid is the lowest for a reason. So it's up to us to ensure quality is maintained, but its a never ending battle. The other part of the problem is just bad habits by the contractors. They know there is money to be made by cutting corners and they do so, seemingly without shame. Speaking of no shame, I didn't even get into the sewer trenches that always seem to pop up at the construction sites. Nasty.

With this plague of low quality comes opportunity. Opportunity for those contractors who want to deliver a quality product despite having to keep their prices low. Such is the case with one company that has been awarded 4 different projects here. It's a small company run by 5 brothers, all some type of engineer. One of the brothers was a fighter pilot in Saddam's Army, but lost his commission after the 1st Gulf War (has there been a second Gulf War? Because I wouldn't call this a Gulf War. Anyhow, I digress . . .). The motto is this company is deliver a quality product and they do just that, yet somehow manage to keep their prices down. Word of mouth has given these guys opportunity where before there was none, and they are getting projects faster then they keep up with. It's a good story, and I hope with growth they can continue to do what has gotten them to this point.

On another note, I've added some more links to my blogroll on the right. These blogs put my writing to shame, so make sure you take some time and check them out!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Letters from home

"Dear soldier. Plees dont die. I love you."

Receiving letters from elementary school kids has to be the highlight of being deployed. I remember getting letters when I was in Afghanistan and spending hours reading them, and then whenever I was a little down re-reading them. It's kind of like that show "Kids say the darndest things" that used to be on. They write down whatever they think about the war, or Soldiers in general, and usually accompany it with an awesome drawing. Some ask me if I am tired, or if it is really loud here. One kid asked me what Iran looks like. At least 30 of them told me its good I didn't die or asked me not to die; the kid I quoted up above who asked me not to die drew a tank shooting an army guy. I laughed at that one for at least 5 minutes.

This time, I've received hundreds of letters, most notably from kids at Hillcrest, Belmont Station, Yosemite, and St. Annies (my elementary alma matter!). They all have one theme in common, and that seems to be that every letter is truly appreciative of the Armed Forces. Hillcrest sent us over 12 huge boxes filled with all of their Halloween candy that was collected throughout the entire school. These kids gave up all of their candy just to send to us, and the letters they wrote all said "we gave up our candy because you need it more than we do." An elementary school kid, giving up their hard earned Halloween candy that they wait for all year? Wow. Thinking of that kind of sacrifice from someone that age gave me goosebumps.

I sat down today to finish up writing back to them, and started re-reading all the letters again, and I thought that everyone should get to enjoy some of the favorite letters I've received. So I am re-writing some of the funniest / best letters here, omitting names and which school so as not to embarrass anyone. Enjoy!

"Dear Jason,
I hope you like the candy. I feel really bad that you cant be with your family for Halloween it means alot to us that you put your life on the line. I wish I could help but Im just an third grader."

"Be carful! Dear, Jason
I hope you stay safe.
Did you get a lot of candy? I hope you have a good Veteran's Day.
I like your name. I have a friend named Jason. You are a very strong man I would be scared to fight other men that are stronger than me!"

"Dear Veteran,
Thank you for your bravery and courage. It's good you didin't die if you died I would be crying like crazy but it is good you did not die. Thank you for your good fighting in the war.
Thank you for reading this letter!"

"Dear Veteran,
I hope you are doing well. Maybe sometime we could meet and get something to eat at FIVE GUYS. they have good stuff to eat there. You should see my dog, he's so cute
so we can do this on friday November 17th at 3:00 because I have school at 2:30"
(ed. note - sorry buddy, I missed our lunch together! Maybe I can visit your school when I get home)

"We Honor . . .
you because we know that you've served in wars to protect our country from giving up our equal rights. Thank you for protecting our country so we don't have to have slaves. Also thank you for our freedom. Thank you for protecting our country from the United Kingdom. Finnaly I'm grateful that you were willing to give up your life for America."

"We Honor . . .
Everybody who has fought in the Vietnam, Iraq, Civil, World War 1 and 2. and the Revolutinary war. My Great Grandpa was born in 1921. He fought in World War 2 and survived. He died on 2004 by falling off his cane. My Grandpa Grunge fought in the Air Force the year I was born. He has pictures of his plane at his home in Indiana. I hope the Unknown Soilder is revealed in the future. I visited the Vietnam Memorial and heard the president's speech on Memorial Day."

"Dear Jason,
Jason, I'm a thired grad boy. I wonder what it is like way over there in Iraq. I hope your okay and I would want come and see what kind of things can do. Mrs Dvo is is my teacher. thank you For sipporting our cuntry, you are probly busy right now. But I have so much to tell you about Yosemite.

Skiing, hiking, bike rideing, camping, and stuf like that. This week, the tird graders went to the top of Sentinal Dome. When we got to the top There we had the best view of yosemite vally stay safe and pleas write back"

"Dear Jason,
Thank you for going to war for our country. It must be really hard. I hope you come home safely and don't get wounded to badly. Good Luck in battle against terrorists. Be careful."

"Dear Jason,
Thank you for protecting me and our country. I hope we win this war. That would be a good thing. So let's win."

Cant' say it much better than that.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

pudding makes me happy

It wasn't meant to rain here. Even a light sprinkling turns everything into goop. A full rain? Not good. It's sort of like the water hits the dusty earth and the earth freaks out and throws it all back up, so you either have pools of water everywhere, or chocolate pudding-type mud. Which is weird, because the mud almost looks delicious enough to eat, like someone spent the time to whip it up into chocolatey goodness.

When you’re in charge of construction projects, not a whole lot nothing gets done in weather like this. Unfortunately (for the construction) we don’t have the heat of summer, so it takes 4 or 5 days for the mud-pudding to dry out, and in those 4 or 5 days you might get a whole days worth of work accomplished, if your lucky.

Despite the sloppy conditions and lack of progress being made on our projects, I kind of like this weather. It’s cool enough to see your breath but not cold enough to freeze everything; the sun is hidden from view for like the third time this year, and I feel like the mood outside matches my mood inside; which, in a weird way, makes me happier. Go figure.

Oh yea - I got my camera back! I will add pictures every now and then to my flickr page, so use the link on the side of the page to check them out.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

false motivation

They say false motivation is better than no motivation at all, so even when things are at their worst put on a happy face and pretend they don't suck. My problem is that I am at a point where that is becoming a nearly impossible task. We're at precarious point in our deployment where we are real close to going home - awards are submitted, evaluations complete, and for me, project proposals are all finished. So it's easy for us to put it in neutral and coast through the next period of time until our replacements arrive; in fact, the real challenge is getting out of neutral, like a car with a broken shifter.

The problem is that we still have a job to do. Our replacements aren't here yet, and it's not time for us to pack our things and ship them home. Allowing ourselves to slip into cruise control and just mindlessly finish out this deployment is a dangerous situation that we need to guard against, but how? I vaguely remember being like this in Afghanistan 4 years ago, but I think it was easier then. I still had a platoon to lead, and an example to set. Here? Not so much. Being an advisor has been a different sort of challenge the entire past year, and this is no different.

As always, comments and suggestions are appreciated!

Monday, January 14, 2008

one year

Alot can happen in a year. Your life as it is now can be completely different, unrecognizable to you, a year from now. A year ago today I got on a plane headed for Fort Jackson in South Carolina. I was leaving everything I had up to that point - my job, my house, my beautiful wife - and getting on a plane to somewhere I didn't want to go, to start on a series of adventures I didn't want to experience. I had no idea what lay ahead of me, and I was just praying to get through the next week, let alone the next year. Yet, here I am today, a year later, thinking on all that has happened since that day, and hopefully no worse for the wear because of it.


One of the challenges I consistently face here is cultural pressure. As the person in charge of construction projects, many of the Iraqi's have taken a special interest in me. It seems that at least 75% of them have a brother/uncle/cousin in the construction business, and who better to get their relative a job then the guy in charge of the construction where they work?

It's a fairly simple process. I write a scope of work to describe in detail what kind of work I want done. I then send that out to contractors asking for an estimate on how much they can get the job done for. After taking all estimates, I forward that to our contracting center, and they write the legal language and officially award the work to the lowest bidder. The problem with having so many of Iraqi's interested in getting their relatives work is that, should their cousin get the work, the people who didn't get the work get pissed off. Then I am open to be questioned about playing favorites, taking gifts, etc. It's not like the oppurtunity isn't there, either. I have had my fair share of "gift" offerings, but I knew what they really were, and I usually spend about 15 minutes refusing them. It's hard turning down some of these "gifts"! In their culture though, they don't see the problem. If it were up to them, their brother's cousin's uncle would be getting the first shot at all the projects. Why? Because he's family. Makes sense, when you think about it. It's just not ethical.

So I have to look like the bad guy. I've never even sent a request for a bid to someone's relative that I work with, and it hasn't made me a popular guy. Here's the thing though -I don't care. Well, its not that I don't care but . . . yea I don't care. I didn't ask for this. All I want is to get back to my normal life - my house, my job, my beautiful wife. The last thing I need is to have someone question my ethics and have this nightmare extended because I am part of some investigation. So I don't even chance it. Your brother owns a construction business? Awesome! I wont give him any work, but I'll be sure to let the other project officers know that your he's an option.

I was never good at popularity contests anyway.

Friday, January 11, 2008

slip and slide

I poked my head out of my room and blinked my eyes a few times, not believing what I saw. My feet were freezing but I had to step out and touch it anyway, just to make sure - it was snow. Snow, in central Iraq!

The roads were slippery from the snow-turned-rain, and the Humvee slid, just a little, threatening to fishtail if it didn't find traction soon. Luckily for us, it did, and not a minute too soon, as we came up on a narrow bridge with only metal spanners to cross it. The orange dump truck stopped for no reason on the bridge made us nervous, but it turned out to be nothing. I don't know if it was the snow, but there seemed to be more stalled vehicles than normal - every half mile there seemed to be a guy pulled off to the side of the road, peering under his hood or just standing there. Don't stare at us too long, mister, or my friend with the large gun up there on our roof might get nervous. Trust me, you don't want that. Aside from one guy who ran when he saw us, our convoy this time was uneventful. Even the guy who ran stopped and put his hands up when we fired a warning at him.

Life in the IZ is quiet. Most of my IRR friends are on leave, but a few are still around, and I love catching up with them. I finally got my last project approved for funding, to the tune of $10 million. It's so easy to spend money over here . . . I really hope when I go back to my regular job I can get a realistic expectation of spending back. I guess it doesn't matter, because in a few years, I'm sure this will just seem like a bad dream anyway.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Happy Birthday . . .

. . . to the Iraqi Army! No, seriously, it's their 87th birthday today. As a special treat, I had prepared an interview with some of the "old-head" officers and Soldiers from the Saddam era to compare and contrast his army vs. the current army. It was a great plan, except for the fact that they all took off today. Great. No joke, I think it's quite possible they spend more days off than they do working. Oh well. Keep an eye for that interview, though, because I think it will be an interesting comparison.

In other news . . . I have no other news. Which is kind of a good thing here.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Awards Rant, Part I

Once upon a time in the Green Zone (IZ), there was stationed a Lieutenant who worked at a desk. This LTs sole purpose in life (at least, his life for the 6 months he was in the IZ) was to determine the equipment needs of the Iraqi Army and procure the necessary supplies. This was a vitally important function to the establishment of a new Iraqi Army, but it rarely required him to leave his desk, in his cubby hole, in the heavily fortified Green Zone. When LT did have to leave his desk, it was usually to do the normal things people must do - eat, sleep, go to meetings, and smoke cigars. It is upon the latter thing that our story takes place today.

One day the LT was outside his office, smoking a cigar with a few other people. They were having their normal discussion, minding their own business, when some pesky insurgents lobbed a 60mm mortar from an unknown location far, far away. Unfortunately, this mortar happened to land close to the LT and his cigar buddies. Not close enough to hurt any of them, but close enough so that their table shook and they heard a big portion of the loud explosions that mortars make. As anyone who lives in the IZ knows, mortars are an unfortunate part of life. So they scrambled for cover, waited for the "All Clear" signal, and went about life.

Nothing came of this, but a week or so later, the LT decided he was having some hearing problems. He also decided that it was a result of the mortar attack that he narrowly escaped. Now, I've been pretty damn close to many a mortar and rocket, and when they land, they tend to shake you up, and they are loud. However, like most Soldiers, I shake them off and go back to business as usual. Occasionally I hear air being hissed from a truck and get goosebumps, but nothing major. Not our LT, though. He was permanently damaged (actually, the doctor diagnosed temporary hearing loss).

With medical diagnoses in hand, our brave LT went about the cumbersome task of writing himself up for not one, but two combat awards - the Purple Heart and the Combat Action Badge. On the first pass up his chain of command, poor LTs awards were denied. However, he seized opportunity when it became available int he form of a change in his command structure; he presented his packet to the new commander and up his award went.

A few weeks went by and LT re-deployed to the US, his insufferably long 6 month deployment finally over. Nothing was said of this award until a close informant confirmed the impossible - LT received not one, but both highly honored combat awards. And he deserved them - after all, the long patrols he went on, and the nights he spent trying to stay awake guarding his remote combat outpost .. . oh, wait, he didn't do any of those things. No, but he is a decorated combat warrior, a recipient of two awards that represent our bravest and finest warriors, people who sacrificed themselves physically for our country.

Yep, wear them with pride LT, because all that face time you had with the general who signed off on that garbage finally paid off. When people see your decorations, and ask you what happened, make sure you tell them something horrific. We don't want anyone getting the wrong impression that you might not have actually earned them. After all, the criteria for the newly formed Combat Action Badge clearly state that "the Combat Action Badge provides special recognition to Soldiers who personally engage the enemy, or are engaged by the enemy during combat operations." And you clearly did that, right LT?